Excelsior voters this week narrowly supported an increase in sales taxes to support the small Lake Minnetonka town's lakeside park.
The city says it needs to update the 13-acre park, The Commons, which is a regional asset used by thousands of Twin Cities visitors for free each year.
And voters agreed, approving an up to 1 percent bump in local sales tax, which could drum up an estimated $5 million for the park over the years by the visitors and residents who patronize the town's boutiques, antique shops and restaurants.
"The Commons needs substantial upgrades to make our business community more attractive as a destination, but we don't think our residents should have the burden of that," Mayor Mark Gaylord said. "There's clearly support by the voters to proceed with this alternative funding."
The west metro suburb was one of nearly a dozen metro cities with referendums on this week's ballots and did little marketing to voters about it to get 55 percent approval over 44 percent opposition.
But it's not a done deal yet.
The city needed the community's support before going to legislators to either ask for park upgrades to be included in a state bonding bill or to approve special legislation allowing the city to start a special local sales tax.
"It bolsters our argument that this is what the community wants," City Manager Kristi Luger said of the referendum results. "It's just an option we can consider."
Last legislative session, Excelsior's first state bonding bill request, which asked for $5 million for the park, didn't make the cut. And earlier in the year, the city had discussed the possibility of a 1 percent special food and beverage sales tax, which some restaurants opposed.
Gaylord said the broader sales tax would apply to the town's many retail shops instead of just restaurants. But the city is also exploring other options such as state grants and private funding. A tax levy for residents is an "absolute last resort," he said.
The city says it's also saving for the park improvements, but it will take much longer with its small tax base. The estimated $5 million in improvements include replacing a vintage band shell and bathhouse that dates to the 1950s and 1960s and adding upgrades like concession stands and a lake walk. The Commons park draws thousands of visitors each year, including more than 15,000 people for its free July 4 events.
The City Council is expected to discuss the issue Nov. 17 and ask local legislators to meet with city leaders soon to talk about the next steps in the process.
"This town of 2,100," Luger said, "can't support a regional asset on their own."