A growing number of metro area cities are launching nonprofit conservancies to raise funds for public parks after other funding options have failed or run dry.
In Minneapolis, a conservancy started in 2006 supports Gold Medal Park. Two years later, a St. Paul conservancy was launched and has since raised millions for city parks that go beyond what the city can fund.
And a couple of years ago, Minneapolis’ Downtown Council began a conservancy to maintain and raise money for the Downtown East Commons park when the Park Board declined to operate it.
Now two Lake Minnetonka suburbs, Excelsior and Wayzata, are the latest — and smallest — cities to start up conservancies after their bids for state aid failed.
“We’ve tried over and over again to get state funding and in the meantime, our park is degenerating. … Public goods are falling to private parties because of the squeeze of tax dollars,” said Deb Rodgers, a longtime Excelsior resident who started the city’s Community for the Commons conservancy.
Wayzata leaders last summer formed the Wayzata Lake Effect Conservancy and gave it the job of raising $12 million in private funds by 2018 for a new lakeside park and $3 million to support the park’s operation and maintenance. “The city can do just so much,” said Kathy Coward, the conservancy’s executive director.
From Central Park in New York City to Griffith Park in Los Angeles, public parks across the nation are being funded by private donations.
“It’s a fast-growing segment,” said Charlie McCabe, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at the national Trust for Public Land, which calls today the “Golden Age” of conservancies. “These nonprofits are rising to fill the gaps.”
Funding ‘always a challenge’
According to a 2015 report by the Trust for Public Land, nearly half the nation’s top 100 cities now have conservancies that are often driven by financial need.
Park conservancies started after the recession in the mid-1970s, but the concept didn’t take off until the 2000s when a demographic shift led to a drop in revenue for cities. Parks were often the first to get cut, McCabe said.
Conservancies represent the new norm for parks, many of which now rely on a combination of public and private funding. They’re registered nonprofits that make formal agreements with a city or park district, usually to raise money for capital improvements or enhanced operations.
While the nonprofits help cash-strapped cities improve parks without asking more from taxpayers, private funding for public spaces can spur accountability concerns. That’s why, McCabe said, they should be visible and transparent by publishing annual reports and agreements, reporting donations and involving stakeholders.
Conservancies also must deal with the pressure of drumming up millions of dollars. In Minneapolis, a developer had to bridge a fundraising gap with a short-term loan to the conservancy, Green Minneapolis, to open Downtown East Commons last summer.
“Funding is always a challenge. There are a lot of expectations and it’s on us to deliver,” said Beth Shogren, Green Minneapolis’ interim executive director.
She added that the conservancy model is still beneficial: “It’s a way for people who want the park to help the cities make it happen.”
Excelsior’s lakeshore park
Conservancies typically have been more common for large, urban parks. But Excelsior’s conservancy is slated to help the city of about 2,300 residents, which says it doesn’t have enough tax revenue to renovate the 13-acre Commons, a rare piece of public land on Lake Minnetonka.
“When you’re trying to decide between a water line or a street, it’s hard to justify [park expenses],” City Manager Kristi Luger said.
City officials have argued that the park should be supported regionally because it draws thousands of metro area residents for events. But the city failed twice to get $5 million in state funding. Voters agreed in 2014 to a sales tax increase of up to 1 percent for the park, but without state approval the city can’t implement the tax increase.
While Excelsior is returning to the State Capitol again this year, city leaders have found at least one way to boost public funds for the park from $25,000 to $100,000 a year: adding boat docks this summer.
And it’s partnering with the conservancy, started by Rodgers in 2015 after she became frustrated by the park’s condition and found letters to legislators didn’t work. So far, residents and the conservancy’s volunteer board members have raised $53,000 for capital improvements and an endowment fund.
“The Commons is very valuable,” said Rodgers, a retired accountant. “It needs to be preserved and protected as a park because of that.”
A landscape architect next will draft concept plans and cost estimates to revamp the park, including the renovation of its aging band shell and bathhouse. While the city is running the process and will own and operate the park, the conservancy will raise money and collect public input. With only four administrative staffers, Excelsior just doesn’t have time for the park, Rodgers said.
The challenge for the conservancy, she said, is to be transparent and gain public support. “People are afraid outside interests are going to take over the park,” she said. “We’re a bunch of residents who love the park.”
Across Lake Minnetonka from Excelsior, Wayzata unveiled big plans last year for a new lakeside park with a restored shoreline and an expanded city beach with docks, swimming and diving piers. It would include a lake walk, bike lanes and pedestrian crossings over railroad tracks that cut off the lakefront from downtown.
The city of 4,200 residents launched a 10-year concept plan, the Lake Effect, in 2014 to make its lakefront more accessible. City officials have said it could cost an estimated $19 million if all the pieces are built, plus annual operating expenses.
Some public opposition to the plans has centered on the size and scale of the projects and the cost to the city. But leaders said a public-private partnership was always planned, and it came together last summer with the Wayzata Lake Effect Conservancy.
Said Coward, the conservancy’s executive director: “You can’t rely on your government to pay for everything … sometimes the last thing a community will think about is a park.”