Warmth and rain beginning in March have produced acres of luxurious green spaces to enjoy -- unless you have to mow acres of grass every week.
Dianne King of Apple Valley jogged around Valley Lake Park in Lakeville early in the morning while Zeke Christensen, a seasonal worker for the city, mowed the grass. Christensen began mowing grass for the city starting in 2005, six years after his retirement from Target Construction.
The warm, early spring weather has been a boon for park lovers. But park workers, from Apple Valley to Coon Rapids, are struggling to keep up with user demand and with mowing grass that sprouted nearly a month early on playing fields and picnic areas in many city and county parks.
Park staff began fielding calls in the balmy days of March from residents asking if picnic pavilions and playing fields were ready, said Jennifer Snyder, executive director of the Minnesota Recreation and Park Association in Fridley. "Customers expectations are higher, sooner," she said.
Lakeville park workers have been spending nearly all their time cutting the city's 500 acres of park lawns and playing fields, said Parks Director Steve Michaud. He said it takes his nine full-time maintenance workers five days to cut all the grass, then they do it again the next week.
"We have about 100 fields to keep mowed and lined for baseball, softball, lacrosse, soccer and now some early football practice," Michaud said. "We opened our fields April 9." That was at least three weeks earlier than usual.
Like other park managers, Michaud has hired several part-time workers early to help his staff handle lower-priority park repairs and boulevard mowing. He hopes to catch up with less urgent work by June after about 20 seasonal student workers get out of school.
One indication of the early park use was seen at the Coon Rapids Dam Park visitor's center, which had 28 percent more people on March and April weekends to rent bikes, view the stuffed birds and animal collection, or use bathrooms, said Jennifer Fink, marketing and visitors service manager for Anoka County Parks.
"We have definitely had some challenges this year," Fink said. She said visitors started calling in March and early April to reserve picnic pavilions and camping sites that were closed because the water wasn't turned on until April 28, when frozen pipes were no longer a hazard.
When temperatures hit 80 degrees in March, park trash cans overflowed one weekend because seasonal workers hadn't started yet. So the county hired some part-timers three to four weeks early, Fink said. She said its great to see so many more people using the parks this early.
Fink said officials expect the extra staff costs will be offset by more park admission fees and unused snowplowing money.
Practice and ball games started about six weeks sooner than usual in St. Louis Park, bringing the commensurate need for park amenities, be they drinking fountains, trash cans or trimmed grass, said parks superintendent Rick Beane.
"We're in the same boat as every other city, which is catch-up, catch-up, catch-up on mowing," Beane said. St. Louis Park's crew -- a permanent staff of 10 with nine seasonal additions -- mows and maintains more than 400 acres, including 43 ball fields, 42 playgrounds and six soccer fields, Beane said.
The wet May also has slowed park soil aeration and weed-control spraying in many cities, including Hastings, Farmington and Shakopee. Mowing -- twice a week on athletic fields -- and weed control were behind the normal pace last week in Shakopee, which had fielded just one complaint about dandelions, said parks supervisor Bill Egan. He noted that a full day of dry weather is needed after spraying for dandelion herbicide to be effective.
Park workers in Hastings had hoped to repair eroded ground on both sides of a hill slide, but the soggy earth had precluded that last week, said parks director Barry Bernstein. He said the saturated ground also had stopped workers from pouring footings for basketball hoops on an asphalt court installed last fall. On the other hand, the early warmth enabled workers to inspect playground equipment and order repair parts sooner, he said.
The moderate winter also helped St. Louis Park crews get a jump on some projects: The city's picnic tables were brought in for fresh paint and repairs, and bleachers were replaced at ball fields. Not having to slog through several feet of snow helped tree trimmers get more work done, Beane said.
"There was a little bit of upside in the lack of snow," he added.