Packed parks turning down special events

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 29, 2011 - 8:41 AM

Races and fairs bring in big bucks, but Minneapolis says the Chain of Lakes is overbooked.

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Several thousand people waited at the start line last weekend for the Benefit Run for Autism around Lake Calhoun.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Shane Stenzel remembers when the Get In Gear running race in late April, drawing thousands of entrants, was among the first special events to kick off the year in Minneapolis parks.

This year it was No. 16.

The event on West River Parkway came after the Polar Dash, the Pond Hockey tournament, the City of Lakes Loppet, the Valentine's Day 5K and a host of smaller events such as the Rock Bottom Race for Hunger, the Race for Justice, the Recycle Run and the Twin Cities Walk for Water.

Stenzel, who manages special event permits for the Park and Recreation Board, said the year's schedule starts earlier, ends later, and is more crowded in between.

Events have nearly doubled in the last decade, generating more than $1 million annually in revenue for city youth programs in parks.

The crunch has become so intense that park officials have started to say no to additional events, especially at the popular Chain of Lakes in south Minneapolis, or have diverted groups to less heavily used areas of the city's park system.

"We're booked solid," Stenzel said. "Everybody wants the premiere spots, but they just can't have it."

In 1999, he granted 100 permits for walks, runs, rides, art fairs and other activities, from which the park board received about $123,000 in fees. By 2010, the park board permitted 195 events, bringing in nearly $1.1 million.

Topping the revenue list was the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon and TC 10-mile, which paid the park system $130,000 for its event last October. Life Time Fitness also topped the $100,000 mark for multiple events.

Stenzel said the park system just keeps getting requests to hold events, especially in the lakes area across south Minneapolis that includes Calhoun, Harriet and Nokomis.

That's no surprise to Jeff Winter, who lives four blocks from Lake Harriet. He's president of People for Parks, a nonprofit that raises money to improve city parks. It's wonderful that special events promote health and good causes, he said, but the system seems to be running on overload.

"When you're shutting down Lake Harriet virtually every Saturday, I'd say you've reached a saturation point," Winter said.

Popular way to raise money

Minneapolis long has had an overuse policy for parks that allows road closures only twice a month for each lake or parkway, and not on back-to-back weekends. But it has not always been followed.

Many nonprofit groups have discovered that benefit races can raise funds, said Stenzel, and requests for places to run or walk are up significantly.

The parks allow events for the March of Dimes, Special Olympics, Toys for Tots, YWCA, Animal Humane Society and a growing number of medical issues including autism, ALS, cystic fibrosis, lupus, MS, lymphoma, prostate cancer and breast cancer.

For its part, the park system welcomes the fees, which are used for youth athletic fields and youth programming.

Don Siggelkow, assistant superintendent of development, said too many special events can annoy those trying to get to the parks and enjoy them for other purposes. The overuse policy needs to be observed to restore balance, he said.

He is putting final touches on an updated park policy for special events to require better advance signage along routes and to start using e-mails and Internet postings to improve communications about times, dates and places where roadways will be closed.

Making changes is difficult, Siggelkow said, because some groups assume that they have a right to use public parkways.

"There's no right that people have," he said. "It's a privilege that needs to be balanced with understanding the impacts they're having."

Triathlons to 5Ks for autism

Several events produce considerable money for the park system. Life Time Fitness paid more than $64,000 for its triathlon in July, and its Turkey Day 5K in November cost organizers more than $40,000.

Others toward the top of the fee scale included the October Monster Dash at $59,000 and the Minneapolis Marathon in June at $39,000, both sponsored by locally based Team Ortho Foundation. The Stone Arch Festival of the Arts along the Mississippi River brings in nearly $22,000.

Stenzel said fees are calculated based on their impact: how many people they draw, how long they last and how much parkland they use.

The fees exclude what event organizers pay separately for park police if roads are closed, trash removal, portable toilets, paramedics, tents, refreshments and other expenses.

Fees for smaller events range between $3,000 to $6,000. Untimed "fun runs" or walks on paths that don't use roads bring in $1,000 to $3,000.

Special events also include fireworks, art shows, bike tours, ski races and ethnic festivals.

Corey Donovan, an organizer of the Autism 5K held May 21, said his event began three years ago. Held at Lake Calhoun, the event drew 1,850 entrants last year and the group paid $6,300 in fees. It was lucky to get a prime lake slot just before park officials began closing the door on new events near lakes, Donovan said.

With generous sponsors and volunteers that pay for most costs, nearly all of the runner registration fees can go to programs that provide therapy for autistic children in Minnesota and some research, he said. Fees ranged from $20 to $35 per entrant. Nearly 1,600 walkers and runners participated this year.

Perhaps even more important, Donovan said, the event builds public awareness about autism and gives a chance for families with autistic children to feel less isolated and more comfortable at a public event.

Untapped city park jewels

Siggelkow said one way to ease pressure on the system is to direct new events and some renewals to less-congested parks. Stenzel said he recently advised groups wanting new permits to consider Wirth Park, Boom Island or North Mississippi Regional Park, all of which are "jewels in the system that just haven't been tapped into."

Some events may migrate to St. Paul or to the suburbs, where park officials say fees are lower and space for special events more abundant.

About 100 run/walk events are held in St. Paul's system each year and about 10 percent of them draw more than 1,000 participants, said Brad Meyer, public service manager for St. Paul Parks and Recreation. The overall number has risen from 300 to 400 in the past five years, he said, but it reflects a broader definition of special events than Minneapolis uses.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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