Minneapolis business leaders have created a nonprofit conservancy to oversee a new urban park that will sprout up beside the new Minnesota Vikings stadium.

With the formation of Greening Downtown Minneapolis, business leaders are taking a leadership role on a project that public bodies have struggled to make a reality because of daunting funding and legal challenges.

Said Steve Cramer, CEO of the Downtown Council, "The vision is for this entity to be an important new part of the civic infrastructure in downtown — really addressing, I think, what most of us would acknowledge is one of the weaker parts of an otherwise really strong downtown, and that is green space, public realm."

The Downtown Council recently helped form the conservancy with $50,000 in seed money from Wells Fargo. Its bare-bones three-member board is led by David Wilson, an executive at Accenture.

If given City Council approval, the organization's primary role would be to oversee a new 4.2-acre park planned to anchor the multifaceted developments in Downtown East.

Cities across the country have turned to private entities to manage and oversee programming for urban parks, but the model would be a first-of-its-kind on a large scale in the Twin Cities.

The conservancy would be led by a public-private board, overseeing maintenance, operations, programming and continuing fundraising for the Commons.

Cramer said a consultant is being hired to suggest a precise business model, one that could be expanded to include other park areas.

"It could be an entity that could play this management or programming or fundraising role at multiple sites," Cramer said, citing the city-owned Peavey Plaza as one possibility.

Council President Barb Johnson said she would like to see so-called pocket parks spring up across downtown, like one owned by the St. Olaf Church tucked off 2nd Avenue. A conservancy is better suited to handle the challenges that come with downtown parks, she said, including high foot traffic, crime and the need for consistent programming.

"It's a relationship that benefits us as a city," Johnson said. "But then also the businesses benefit from having adjacency to green space. All across the city we know [parkland] enhances tax base."

The Commons already has proved vexing for city leaders, unique in both its location and the amount of time — potentially more than 100 days a year — it is contractually obligated to sports events and activities. Its construction is expected to cost between $6.3 million and $10.5 million, based on city estimates, about $4.6 million of which has been identified from private sources.

Developing a vision

What it will look like remains unclear. The city is selecting from a list of designers who responded to a request for proposals to develop a vision for the space, which Council Member Jacob Frey anticipates will help fuel fundraising.

"You can't really ask someone for money before they know what they're giving money for," Frey said.

He said the biggest outstanding question is how to pay for ongoing maintenance costs.

The conservancy model would not protect taxpayers from having to pay any deficits generated by the park, which means City Hall must devise a plan to cover continuing costs. The Park Board, which briefly considered operating the park itself, estimated the new park would cost between $2 million and $3 million a year to operate and maintain. Frey pegs it at between $500,000 and $1 million.

Some of the revenue may be generated by the park itself, through events and concessions. But some downtown property owners could be asked to pay up through assessments if those sources fall short."But then where is the boundary? Who is assessed? By how much?" Frey said.

He did not rule out the possibility of tapping general fund money to pay ongoing park costs.

Frey said that it's also still being determined who exactly would own the park itself, but city ownership is one possibility.

Money to build the park will be aided by $3.6 million from Ryan Companies — part of their deal with the city to build next to the site — and another $1 million from the Vikings. Frey said the Vikings money was given on the condition that the park not be named for another corporation.

"We can still collect funds in exchange for recognition on structures within the space," Frey said. "So benches, movie screens, ice skating rinks."

Conservancies have been used to oversee other unique urban parks across the country, including Grant Park in Chicago and Bryant Park in New York City. Conservancies have become so common in New York City that the mayor has asked them to chip in money for green space in needier areas. Some park boosters have raised concerns that the prevalence of conservancies nationally is jeopardizing the public purpose of parks.

A 2009 study by the Trust for Public Land examined conservancies in St. Louis, Atlanta, Houston, Pittsburgh and New York. Their primary purpose, it found, is to "raise money independent of the city and spend it under a plan of action that is mutually agreed upon with the city."

Their large boards typically give cities only advisory roles, the study said, rather than voting powers. Cramer said they expect public representatives would have a vote on the Greening Downtown Minneapolis board, though nothing is finalized.

Private governance was explored in the past for Loring Park, said Park Board President Liz Wielinski, but they discovered it was difficult to accomplish with an existing park.

"People were concerned it would become too private," Wielinski said. They determined it would likely be feasible for new parks, however.

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