Privatization at Wirth Park

The following item by Shawne FitzGerald, a resident of Powderhorn Park, first appeared on and is being republished here with permission.


On July 11th, 2012, the Minneapolis Park Board voted to overturn the recommendations of the Theodore Wirth Citizens Advisory Committee and the recommendation of its own Planning Committee and shift $1.5 million in State bond funds from environmental projects at Wirth Park to building a new Welcome Center in the vicinity of the Wirth Par 3 Clubhouse.

The Welcome Center was heavily promoted by the City of Lakes Nordic Ski Foundation (dba The Loppet Foundation). The Loppet pledged to raise $3 million in private donations for Center construction and MPRB staff was directed to develop an agreement with The Loppet “to raise not less than a 2 for 1 matching amount of $3.0 million privately by December 1, 2014.” The Board also directed staff to prepare a detailed park development and operations pro forma “that identifies the ability to construct the [Welcome Center] without negative MPRB budget impact.”

The Loppet is back with a fundraising agreement and it’s a doozy.

In return for raising $3,000,000, The Loppet wants a 25 year lease on the new Welcome Center and 22.5 surrounding acres. The Loppet would serve as “Developer” subletting the building to tenants like a restaurant, a bike shop, a winter sports store, offices, etc. It appears The Loppet would keep all building revenue. The Loppet would also have naming rights to the building and all interior areas. Finally, the MPRB would “credit” the Loppet’s annual rent payments for 20 years, total value $3 million.

Loppet fundraising deadlines could be pushed out to mid-2015.

The Loppet would take over all MPRB winter recreation activities and related work (snow making, trail grooming, equipment rentals) at Wirth, Columbia, Gross and Hiawatha. Experienced MPRB union employees would be replaced by The Loppet. The Loppet would collect funds for event permits, x-country/tubing/snowboarding passes, equipment rentals, etc. and apparently keep these. Plus The Loppet would organize bicycle races and events similar to its x-country fundraisers. The MPRB would give the Loppet its snowmaking and trail grooming equipment and winter sports equipment inventory, a donation estimated at $200,000 or so.

It’s not clear if the MPRB will provide a separate contract to pay the Loppet for maintenance work. Net losses in the winter recreation program have surpassed $200,000+ in recent years. Increased snowmaking at Wirth also has a hidden cost: it takes so long for the snow to melt that golf course openings are delayed, costing these courses $35,000-$100,000 a year. Since no financial projections have been included, it’s tough to see if the privatization is a solution.

The MPRB would continue to provide outdoor utilities – primarily electricity for trail lights and snowmaking.

The agreement calls for MPRB demolition of the Wirth Par 3 Clubhouse and parking. The MPRB would build a new and larger parking lot across the Parkway (southside) and possibly a new pedestrian/biking bridge. Replacement of the Clubhouse, fully paid for out of golf revenues, is not in the plan. The Loppet would collect golf and cart rental fees at its concierge station with 95% of golf revenue paid to MPRB. The golfers are hoppin’ mad!

In a related simultaneous project, the MPRB would demolish and relocate holes 17 and 18 of the historic Wirth Golf course. MN SHPO has almost completed the paperwork for a new Grand Rounds historic district and the Wirth Golf Course is listed as a contributing historic site. Relocating the golf holes would allow for new trails from the Welcome Center to the Bassett Creek area for mountain biking(bmx?) race events. (Not the same as the single track off-road trails in the Wirth woods, built by MORCA volunteers, so as not to harm the environment.)

There’s more – the paperwork is over 20 pages: . No market studies, no business plan. No frank discussion of how many Minneapolis residents use or want winter recreation services and how to provide these, equitably, throughout the City. Not a word about access for low-income people, no mention of programs for disadvantaged youth. The Loppet is an organization with no experience in property management, commercial leasing, park keeping, or bicycle events – yet the MPRB is seriously considering issuing a 25 year no-bid lease and contract to this group.

This is listed as a study item before Admin and Finance Committee. Expect it will be moved, referred to full Board, and a done deal by tomorrow night.

Shawne FitzGerald

Member of Minneapolis Park Watch