And a new nonprofit will raise money to help enhance and preserve the beloved system.
Bob Bierscheid sees a big opportunity on the horizon for St. Paul's park system.
Facing a tight budget and aging infrastructure, the director of parks and recreation is excited by the effort to form a parks conservancy -- an independent, nonprofit organization that will raise money and partner with the city to help maintain and enhance the system. The City Council recently approved a grant to get the ball rolling.
"We need to partner now to preserve the unbelievable resources we have," he said. "The opportunities are mind boggling."
Elsewhere in the country, conservancies have been major contributors.
The Seattle Parks Foundation, for instance, has raised more than $24 million for parks projects in that city -- $18 million toward one project alone. And closer to home, the Como Zoo and Conservatory Society has helped build a visitor center.
St. Paul parks and rec maintains more than 160 parks and open spaces, as well as 41 recreation centers.
A McKnight Foundation grant of $150,000 will go toward the hiring of a person to figure out initial logistics, put together a board of directors and begin a fundraising plan.
Bierscheid likes to use the Como Zoo and Conservatory Society as a model.
That organization, formed in 1999, has contributed $18 million for programs and building improvements at the Como campus, the area comprising the zoo, conservatory, carousel and Como Town, said Jackie Sticha, executive director of the society.
The society's projects range from planting flowers to upgrading Sparky the sea lion's amphitheater to building a visitor's center.
Como is considered a regional park and attracts 1.7 million visitors per year. Bierscheid said it wouldn't make sense to broaden the focus of the Como Society, so the new conservancy will concentrate on the rest of the parks system.
Although the parks and rec department's budget hasn't been cut, the 2008 proposal is about $48 million, the infrastructure continues to age and costs for programming and maintenance continue to rise.
The new conservancy isn't meant to supplant the budget, Bierscheid said, but it's another tool to make improvements and go beyond the normal level of services.
The Seattle foundation was formed six years ago, and executive director Karen Daubert has been there since the beginning.
To succeed, she says, new conservancies need to:
Build a strong board of directors; many civic, business and philanthropic leaders are used to asking for money.
Complete a smaller project quickly and successfully, something people will notice.
Work on a major park project, something that gets people excited.
"In a very big way, they've undertaken a lot of small projects that we wanted to do but couldn't get going," said Dewey Potter, spokeswoman for the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department. "They have a knack for raising money."
She said the city and the foundation get along well, although the potential for conflict existed at the beginning. Clearly defining roles, expectations and clear communication eased tensions, she said.
Another challenge conservancies face is the competition from other established nonprofits, said Sticha of the Como society. But, she said, people seem to love the Como campus, illustrated by the increase in membership from 500 to 3,000 and growth in endowment from $12,000 to $5.5 million.
Daubert, who has toured Twin Cities parks, said St. Paul residents are similar to their counterparts in Seattle when it comes to parkland.
"People live there not because of the weather, but because they feel passionate about parks," she said. "Open spaces, natural resources, bodies of water are such vital parts of the fabric of the community."
Chris Havens 651-298-1542