Funding Is Front And Center In Minneapolis Park Board Race

The following article by Bill McAuliffe was published in the Star Tribune on October 16, 2013 and updated on the 19th. The full article, with any associated images and links can be viewed here:


Candidates for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board say there’s something for everyone in the parks.

The same could also be said of issues in this year’s campaign.

Riverfront development, equal opportunities for all users, better upkeep in community parks, more youth programming, more senior programming, smoother paths — all are on the candidates’ to-do lists.

One overriding issue will, of course, be funding. The agency’s budget next year could increase about 2.5 percent, due entirely to an enhanced effort to replace ash trees. But the share of a homeowner’s tax bill that goes to parks has been decreasing. The Park Board has been shifting expenses in recent years and has tapped new sources of income through new restaurants in the parks and from funds raised by the new Minneapolis Parks Foundation. But neighborhood parks and recreation centers are showing a mounting need for rehabilitation, many say.

“I think we have a great program, but we can always expand on it,” said Bob Fine, who’s leaving the board after 16 years to run for mayor.

Ten people are running for three at-large seats on the board, and five of six incumbents in district seats are running for re-election, though the race is likely to be overshadowed by the crowded mayoral campaign.

At-large candidates

Incumbent board Chairman John Erwin is running for his third nonconsecutive term on the board, spotlighting a record that includes taking money saved by reducing 20 administrative positions and putting it into capital improvements in neighborhood parks. He also points to recent riverfront land purchases in northeast Minneapolis as early milestones in the RiverFirst initiative, a park-centered plan to redevelop the Mississippi River shoreline north from Plymouth Avenue to the city’s border with Fridley. “RiverFirst is our generation’s contribution to the city,” he said.

Green Party endorsee and incumbent Annie Young would like to push the district to a greater commitment to renewable energy and is also calling for a deeper commitment to meeting the needs of an increasingly multicultural set of park users. Along those lines, she indicated she will strive to diversity park staff “to reflect what the city now looks like.”

An at-large challenger with a familiar name is Tom Nordyke, a former board chairman who was defeated for re-election in 2009, when five candidates who were either on the board or had served previously were running for three at-large seats. Nordyke, a consultant on arts-related real estate projects, noted that his previous term was marked by conflict among board members and then-superintendent Jon Gurban.

“It’s time to do some fun stuff in this term,” he said, although he noted that the parks will be challenged to maintain existing properties at a time when city policymakers are encouraging more population density.

Jason Stone, a two-time candidate who has been a youth coach and been involved in numerous community organizations, said he’d like to help establish a working group involving parks commissioners and other community leaders to address racial equity in park offerings, an issue Green and other candidates also touched on. Stone is a corporate and nonprofit manager.

Also returning to the ballot is Meg Forney. It’s her fifth run for the board. In addition to calling for reducing physical and cultural barriers for park users, Forney, a Realtor, said the parks should build on their already-substantial role after-school programs for kids to help reduce the achievement gap between white kids and kids from other ethnic groups.

A youth coach for 40 years, Steve Barland wants to develop parks programs for all ages, get the agency to plant and protect more trees, and fight back frequent suggestions to merge the Park Police with the city’s police force.

Casper Hill, a city of Minneapolis spokesman and long-distance runner, said he’s realized from his training runs all over town that park buildings and trails need better upkeep. He’s president of Club Run Minneapolis, and it was a partner on one run who encouraged him to run for office. Single-sort recycling, as city residents now have, would help encourage recycling in the parks, he added, and the district needs to do a better job of translating information into multiple users’ languages.

Ishmael Israel, whose job with the Northside Residents Redevelopment Council is to get individuals and groups involved in community organizations, said he’d like to do the same for the parks as a way to reduce cultural inequities, which he believes are not intentional. He also said getting more people of all ages to the parks would help fight the national epidemic of obesity. Most candidates noted that the parks have a daily impact on many Minneapolis residents’ lives, but Israel can cite a personal, lifelong impact: he and his wife were married at the Wirth Park chalet in September.

Mary Lynn McPherson, who runs a dog-care and dog-walking business, praised the current board for maintaining a “world-class” park system, but said it’s time for new voices, and that park board members need to find a way to be more visible in the city. The parks need more programs for seniors, she added.

Hashim Yonis may have an uphill battle in the race for an at-large seat. Yonis, who accompanied Mayor R.T. Rybak last year to meet President Obama for recognition of a Minneapolis youth jobs and mentoring program, was fired from his job as a youth specialist in the parks after an investigation into $3,800 of soccer field rentals that never got forwarded to the park board. He is still campaigning, though, and calling for equity and social justice in the park system.