Private manager considered for downtown Minneapolis park

The following article by Alejandra and Eric Roper was published in the May 20, 2014 edition of the StarTribune.

Private manager considered for downtown Minneapolis park

City and Park Board officials in Minneapolis are considering giving control of the proposed “Yard” in Downtown East to a third-party entity.

Council Member Jacob Frey, who represents the area, said the two groups met Friday to discuss who will take control of operations and maintenance of the park, which will adjoin Wells Fargo’s new corporate campus near the Vikings stadium.

Although an agreement has not yet been signed, Frey said the city and Park Board are coming to a consensus that giving control to an outside entity, like a nonprofit or conservancy, is the best option. Frey said the Yard project is too big for the city or the Park Board to handle on its own.

“Sometimes the best decision as a public servant is recognizing that a public servant can’t do it alone,” Frey said. “I’m advocating for the conservancy.”

The third-party group would consist of city, Park Board and community representatives. Frey said there may be representatives from other groups as well, such as the Vikings or Ryan Companies, which is building the stadium.

Council President Barb Johnson and Park Board Superintendent Jayne Miller both disputed the assertion that they were nearing any agreement.

“I think at this point it’s premature to say there’s any kind of consensus developing,” said Johnson, who supports having an outside entity manage the park. She said a final decision would most likely need approval by the council and Park Board

Johnson said downtown parks are “a different kind of animal” that can require a different model from most parks to succeed.

“Because they’re very expensive to maintain and you are able to produce revenue off of them by having events,” Johnson said. “But somebody’s got to take care of that booking, promoting active use, all that sort of thing, and that isn’t necessarily the expertise of people in government.”

Park Board members grumbled in January about the prospect of taking over the Yard. Park Board President Liz Wielinski said at the time it could cost $300,000 a year just to mow, shovel and light a basic park — not counting additional amenities.

“We are at the very early stages of discussion about what’s possible,” said Miller, who declined to discuss the talks further. “To characterize where we are in the same vein as council member Frey, I would not do that.”

Kate Brickman, a spokeswoman for Mayor Betsy Hodges, said the mayor is “open to options.” “Mayor Hodges wants a well-programmed plaza at the heart of downtown east,” Brickman said. “So the question now is what’s the best way to get there.

Council Member Cam Gordon said he would like the Yard to be a full-service, publicly run park with community programming and possibly a playground.

“My concern … is it’s going to be an outdoor facility geared to the wealthy visitors and maybe some people who work downtown,” Gordon said. “But not to the regular folks.”

Frey said the agreement could come in the next few weeks because the park is on a “tight timeline. “It’s important that we have an end decision so that we have an entity that is able to fundraise,” Frey said.

He said the group has discussed giving ownership of the Yard to the Park Board, which then would lease operation and maintenance to the conservancy. Once the conservancy is formed, its first task will be fundraising.

“We know that people, private donors, are not enthralled with the idea of donating to government,” Johnson said. Donating to an outside group, she said, “is a more attractive option.”

Most of the city bonds of $18.8 million have been used to buy the site and pay for demolition of the Star Tribune building. Another $1.1 million is expected to be left over for a basic park. The Minnesota Vikings will pay another $1 million for improvements. The bonds, which also will help fund a nearby parking ramp, will be repaid with parking revenues.

The nearly two-block park is part of the $400 million mixed-use development on five city blocks near the new Vikings stadium. Developer Ryan Cos. is building two 18-story office towers, 193 market-rate apartments, restaurant and retail space, and the park.

A ceremonial groundbreaking was held last week for the project, but construction of the office towers is already well underway.

The park’s basic infrastructure, including sod, sidewalks and a stormwater system, will be in place when it is turned over to the city by Ryan.