Champlin received $4,900 for two artificial turf goal areas. Golden Valley won a $96,000 grant for girls’ softball field improvements. Minneapolis was awarded $8,000 for swimming lesson equipment at the North Commons Water Park.
The money for those proposals and nearly 500 other youth sports projects in Hennepin County were funded through an unusual grant program launched by the County Board a decade ago.
So far, $23.8 million has been awarded by the Youth Sports Program, in turn generating $94 million in matching grants from cities, boosters, private donors, foundations and other groups.
“I’m a big fan of the program,” said County Board Chairwoman Marion Greene. “This grant program is one more way that the county partners with its cities to support healthy living.”
The program, which is run by the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission, offers $2 million in county grants annually. Requests can be made for three project categories: facilities, small equipment and playground structures. The largest grant amount is $300,000.
It’s funded through proceeds from the sales tax surcharge used to build Target Field. Since the public was paying for part of the ballpark bill, the County Board decided residents should receive a benefit, said Commissioner Mike Opat. The board approved funding from the stadium sales tax to go toward the Youth Sports Program and extended library hours.
“We wanted the grants to be big enough so the projects could be completed and not be in perpetual limbo,” he said. “And we wanted the requesters to feel it was worth their while.”
Opat this week asked for a hearing about the program to educate the board’s two new commissioners, Angela Conley and Irene Fernando, so they can tell their constituents about it.
Since the program started, the county has awarded 13 playground grants, 320 equipment grants and 148 facility grants. Projects in Opat’s northeast suburban district have won $4.5 million in grants, the most of the seven county districts.
Money for New Hope’s arena helped make it more energy-efficient and made it possible to add a skate rental area, said Parks and Recreation Director Susan Rader.
“It’s a big asset in our city,” she said. “We are so appreciative of the grant program. It saved money for the city and let us lessen our carbon footprint.”
Two years ago, the County Board expanded the Youth Sports Program to include a swimming and water safety component for underserved youth and communities.
The idea came from Commissioner Jan Callison and former Commissioner Peter McLaughlin after the drowning of several children from immigrant communities. “This is a low-cost way to have a big impact on children’s lives,” Callison said.
In 2018, 42 percent of the children who took swimming lessons were black and 93 percent were under 12, said Thomas Rupp, director of the Youth Sports Program.
“The program has touched every end of the county,” he said. “No matter how big or small the community, it’s a great opportunity. ... Beyond increasing physical activities, it reduces racial disparities.”