Chance to enhance Twin Cities parks clashes with cash crunch

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 6, 2013 - 3:31 PM

The “historically unique” land-buying opportunity is also creating a cash crunch to pay for the properties.

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Twin Cities parks agencies, nailing down bargain deals with eager sellers, face a huge funding shortfall. Suburban counties, the biggest acquirers of land, are seeing slow growth in visits, while park use is growing steeply in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

Photo: JEFF WHEELER • jeff.wheeler@startribune.com,

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With millions of dollars of valuable land available at a discount, far more than they can afford, metro parks agencies are scrambling to snatch up as much land as they can to bolster regional parks for the coming decades.

Officials are trying to close on a wide range of deals for parcels they’ve had their eye on for years, but the result is a looming $7 million shortfall in a pool of shared funding for metro parks acquisitions. Time is short as sellers wait for government machinery to clank along and developers circle some of the same prime sites.

“This is a historically unique moment,” said Arne Stefferud, parks manager for the Metropolitan Council. High-quality properties have been foreclosed, and banks are trying sell them off. “We have situations we’ve never experienced before,” he said.

Existing parks and trails, especially in the inner metro, are getting heavy use.

Visits to regional parks and trails in Hennepin and Ramsey counties since 2006 have soared by 8.4 million, six times the growth of all of the purely suburban counties combined. Between 2011 and 2012, as regional parks serving suburban counties such as Anoka and Dakota declined, as a group, those in Hennepin and Ramsey counties jumped by more than 2 million, a new set of estimates shows.

A regionwide parks commission will start pondering a list of proposed solutions this week. The package is likely to include a move to borrow money in hopes of not losing key chances, while asking some sellers to be patient.

Scott County is pursuing a 300-acre site overlooking the Minnesota River valley as the centerpiece of a future regional park, but the pressure is on. On paper, at least, it’s already been divided into seven “executive home sites.”

“We have five or six active acquisitions, we have willing sellers who want to create a legacy in this state,” said Scott County’s parks chief, Mark Themig. “And not all will get funded because we will run out of money. And that is just a fact.”

Other agencies’ wish lists include nine parcels in Dakota County alone, of which six, amounting to around $2 million, would add to the Spring Lake Park Reserve, overlooking the Mississippi River valley near Hastings, and a $350,000 addition to the Rosemount Greenway. And Washington County is seeking a $1.5 million piece of a St. Croix Valley Trail.

“I don’t want to discount the importance of protecting open space anywhere within the region,” said Bruce Chamberlain, assistant superintendent for planning. Still, “we have in the Chain of Lakes the most visited parks and trails in the state of Minnesota. If we can take pressure off that portion of our system by better developing other places, that is important to us.”

It would also help right a long-standing imbalance in parks access between affluent areas in the city’s southern reaches and the poorer north and northeast parts of town.

The funding for acquisitions comes from a mix of state sources, including Legacy funds for some purchases, and bonds issued by the Metropolitan Council, the seven-county regional planning agency.

Urban counties gain users

Although suburban counties have been stockpiling acres at the greatest rate, and have by far the most ambitious plans for future spending, signs are that population and parks use in the inner metro area are growing faster than in outlying counties.

Those factors influence the vast majority of the funding that goes to different agencies, Stefferud said.

But when it comes to new land buys, says council researcher Raintry Salk, there simply exists a vast gap between the inner and outer metro in the number of acres yet to be acquired but that are outlined in existing plans.

As of 2012, about 9,500 acres remained inside park-plan boundaries but outside of public hands — less than 1 percent of it in Minneapolis or St. Paul but nearly 3,100 acres in Scott County alone and almost as much in Washington County.

Should user numbers influence land buying priorities?

“You’d be hard pressed to find any parks agency that wouldn’t say that usage numbers count,” said Dawn Sommers, spokeswoman for the Minneapolis parks. “It’s wear and tear on our parks and it’s a public that demands and needs the services we provide.”

Parks planners in the outer-ring counties say that they have been pursuing sites for years that promise to be gemstones of major new installations. The time to make sure the most prized land is safely in public hands, they say, is when sellers are lining up to make reasonable offers.

Funds for parkland purchases come from several sources, Met Council officials say -- primarily from the state, through Legacy dollars and other means, but also from the council itself, which has bonding power.

Major parks acquisitions in the suburbs aren’t always for immediate use, or even primarily for use at all.

Anoka County has piled up hundreds of new acres over the past decade or so, and the bulk of them have been wetlands aimed at water quality improvement, said Jeff Perry, operations manager for Anoka parks.

In much more populous areas closer to the heart of the metro area, meanwhile, the pressing need is to expensively re-engineer built-up areas for trails demanded by an aging population eager to bike and walk close to home.

John Gunyou, who chairs the Three Rivers parks commission, covering suburban Hennepin and Scott, speaks of “shifting our organization from parks to trails, meeting needs a different way. There’s a huge increase in the use of our trails because of people like me, getting older, but still wanting to bike and jog.”

So far, said Scott County’s Themig, the agencies are working cooperatively to try and reconcile the competing demands. They met within the past two weeks to help create a plan, and Stefferud said the hope is to “sharpen their pencils” and reduce the cash-flow problem by finding a way to delay some purchases.

“My sense is that everyone’s acting in the long-term interests of the region as a whole, remembering that we’re creating something for people 50 or 100 years from now,” he said.

 

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

 

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