What will it take to turn 460 acres of open land in Empire Township into an alluring regional park?

Will a gravel entrance road work, or should it be paved?

Should camper cabins be offered?

Would picnic grounds be a larger initial draw than an off-leash area for dogs?

These questions and others are under discussion by Dakota County as it prepares to open Whitetail Woods Regional Park in early 2014.

The land -- formerly used for farming and hunting -- lacks roads, trails, electricity, bathrooms, running water and shelter.

Commissioners have said they are willing to spend $4.7 million next year to make the kind of improvements that will draw people to the new park in the middle of the county.

They directed county staff to concentrate the initial spending in a commons area that includes an observation point overlooking Empire Lake, picnic grounds, a lighted sledding hill with a multi-purpose warming house, playgrounds, a shelter big enough for 100 people, art, restrooms and a parking lot.

"I really like the idea of doing the commons first. I think it makes sense to get this park off and running with a really strong attraction,'' County Board Chairwoman Nancy Schouweiler said. "The $4.7 million seems like a lot of money, but when you look at what you are getting, that's a big chunk of park.

"This gives us an opportunity to boost our park visit numbers, to bring people into an area they haven't seen, to see things we don't offer in other parks.''

On the wish list for later is a paved road ($340,000), an observation tower ($75,000), a lake pier ($75,000), playground additions ($50,000), a dog park ($250,000) and camper cabins in the pine forest ($600,000).

Commissioners Tom Egan and Liz Workman said a gravel entrance road might deter visitors.

To reach the park, people will have to ride on gravel township roads for 2 1/2 miles and then will have another mile of unpaved road, with dust and flying gravel, in the park leading to the commons area, Egan said.

"If you are going to have that much of gravel road, you better have something worth traveling to,'' Workman said. "You better have a wow factor at the end instead of having something that every other park has. I can go to a lot of places and enjoy a lake and have a picnic somewhere.''

Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord said the view of Empire Lake, which is considered the heart and the jewel of the park, is "the wow factor.''

"Going down to it on a gravel road just adds to the sense of discovery," Gaylord said.

The broad goal for the park is to create a healthy, scenic space where people can be inspired, said Bruce Blair, manager of park development for the county.

In the spirit of the local food movement, the park will designate 100 acres for growing food, and will include an orchard.

The 25-acre lake is one of the cleanest bodies of water in the county, but it has a muck bottom and is unlikely to attract swimmers, Blair said. He expects people to wade near the shore and children to play at the water outlet for the lake.

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287