In the past 10 years, the number of visits to Dakota County parks has jumped by nearly 300,000, from less than 900,000 a year to more than a million. But county officials want to see even more visitors.

So they’re looking for the people who don’t show up — such as teens, seniors and people of color — and trying to tailor park offerings to their interests. At the same time, the county is investing more in its parks: The annual parks budget has climbed by almost $10 million over the past decade to nearly $24 million in 2016, with most of the spending going toward natural resource protection and greenways.

“It’s less about the money, to be frank,” said Parks Director Steven Sullivan. “It’s more about what the public wants and desires.”

Dakota County’s parks system has been around since the late 1960s. Since 2006, the county has spent nearly $140 million on it. Even though the number of visits has risen in the past decade, the county’s investment per visit has also gone up.

“It’s a young parks system, as parks systems go, and we’re still building a lot of what needs to be there in order to attract … park users,” said County Board Chairwoman Nancy Schouweiler. “What’s out there that people want that fits into our existing parks?”

The county’s newest park, Whitetail Woods, opened two years ago in an effort to serve fast-growing Lakeville, Rosemount and Farmington. Three camper cabins there have won national design awards and become so popular that visitors must book their stay a year in advance.

Russell Welch and Brenda Andrewson live nearby and hike through the park regularly. Though they visit other Dakota County parks, they said, they prefer Whitetail Woods because it’s close to home, offers varied terrain and has a smattering of black walnut trees that, in the fall, drop nuts that Andrewson uses for dying textiles.

On Friday morning, theirs was one of just a few cars in the parking lot. It’s busier on weekends, they said, and in winter when children flock to the park’s sledding hill.

Similar park infrastructure investments are being made around the metro. According to the Metropolitan Council, 24 parks and trails were added to the regional system between 2005 and 2015, and the number of visits rose by nearly 14 million during that time.

In the last decade, the Three Rivers Park District built or extended several trails and added a nature center, off-leash dog areas and camper cabins, among other investments. The payoff has been mixed.

“People are coming more frequently to the parks than they had in the past, but they are staying for shorter periods,” said research and evaluation manager Jon Nauman. “We would love to know [why], but we really don’t.”

Finding reasons to visit

Dakota County recently hired a consultant to help figure out how to get more people into the parks and maximize the investment the county is making. Part of that is reaching out to underrepresented populations, including teenagers, elderly people and people of color, to figure out what they want from the parks system — an effort that mirrors a regionwide initiative to boost diversity among park visitors.

At a recent County Board meeting, commissioners learned about a variety of ways to bring more people into the parks. They liked some ideas — renting food trucks for park events and offering equipment rental for people with disabilities, for example — but weren’t so sure about major changes, such as building a restaurant.

The county’s parks system is about 80 percent undeveloped natural space, with the remaining 20 percent dedicated to recreation. Park users have fought hard to preserve that: Plans to pave trails at Lebanon Hills Regional Park produced a yearslong firestorm from residents concerned that asphalt would ruin the park’s natural feel.

Commissioner Mike Slavik, who represents rural Dakota County, pointed out at the recent board meeting that it’s often the least-visited parks that offer the highest-quality natural resources. Miesville Ravine Park Reserve in Douglas Township is an example, he said — a place to “go walk in the woods and get lost.”

“It’s a very undeveloped park, so it’s got a very rustic, rural feel to it,” he said. “It didn’t have the impact of a lot of people.”