On one side are staunch dog advocates who believe an off-leash park on a portion of Martin Luther King Memorial Park in south Minneapolis is just the thing they need to exercise and socialize their pooches.

On the other are those who believe the 18 1/2-acre park is hallowed ground, named for the greatest civil rights leader in American history, and not a place where dogs should run loose.

"This was supposed to be a memorial for Dr. Martin Luther King," says Ed Christopher, 84, a retired postal clerk, who circulated petitions against a dog park. "They don't send dogs into a veterans cemetery."

Park officials asked both sides to meet last week to discuss the proposal. An informal poll by meeting organizers found 47 in favor of an enclosed dog park on the King site, 30 against, and three maybes.

Jonathan Lee, 43, who is black and supports a dog park there, said he thinks some of the opponents include elderly people who were once on the front lines of the civil rights movement. "I respect them," he said, "but I respectfully disagree." He's a member of the Kingfield Dog Park Task Force.

Proponents like Ben Harris, a website designer, point to more than 400 friends who have signed a Facebook page in favor of the dog run. Foes such as Christopher say they've got more than 100 names on a petition.

Lowery M. Johnson, a retired elementary school principal in Minneapolis, said he circulated a petition in his neighborhood against the dog park and got 21 signatures on it, all from black people.

Johnson, who is black, notes that in 1968, six months after King was slain, the Park Board renamed Nicollet Field after him. "I just don't feel that they should be putting a dog park in a park that was named in his honor," Johnson says. "It was a memorial park. It's sacred ground and should remain sacred ground."

Mary Vanderford, a retired naturalist, says it's ecologically better to have a park she can walk to with her yellow lab, Rosie, than to drive her car to a dog park farther away. She said the effort for a dog park started because people were getting ticketed for letting their dogs run loose in King Park. "I got a warning and my husband got a warning," she said.

Jennifer Ringold, manager of public engagement and citywide planning for the parks department, said there have been lots of requests for a dog park in the Sixth Park District in southwest Minneapolis, especially in the Kingfield neighborhood.

People filled out questionnaires at last week's meeting, she said, and park officials need to review them and do more outreach to learn if there is an appropriate location in the park; "or if it just won't work in that park, we need to look at other areas within the district."

At the meeting, she said, park officials floated two possible sites for the dog park, one at the northwest corner at 40th Street and Nicollet Avenue, and the other, on the east side of the park, both with a couple of configurations.

The next step could be another public meeting in four to six weeks, at which designs would be proposed. If one emerges, the staff would make a recommendation, schedule a public hearing, then have a Park Board vote, Ringold said.

Room for compromise?

Is there a middle ground? Mary Merrill Anderson, a former Park Board superintendent and park commissioner, says one possible site, proposed Thursday, was "totally inappropriate" because the fenced-in dog run would surround a monument, placed in the park in 1970. The monument is a tribute to King with two abstract wings, representing freedom. The site is also used by many seniors and a dog park there would change the nature of the space, she said.

Anderson said another site, behind the park tennis center, was more appropriate. But she said there should be an examination of all the potential sites in the district, "including parks besides King Park."

Brad Bourn, Sixth District park commissioner, acknowledges that views were "pretty evenly split" on the issue Thursday night, but declined to say whether he endorses a dog park at King Park, although he is "certainly open to putting it there." He adds, "I think southwest needs a dog park.

"As a park commissioner, we would like to have more people from more cultures use more parks for more concerns, and I personally think that is in line with Dr. King's vision and his memory," said Bourn. But he said concerns raised by opponents have merit.

"In my day job I work in the African-American community [as a youth program coordinator] so I get that it is a kind of concern you want to think about."

Staff writer Alex Ebert contributed to this report. Randy Furst • 612-673-7382