Four years after its partnership launched with Hennepin County, Scott County's parks are growing. Park visits rose 24 percent last year, after the opening of a new park. And the county's most popular park is ready for something of a face-lift this summer.
Cleary Lake Regional Park will see renovations to the visitor center, golf greens and roadways over the next year.
"The road reconstruction project was the driver of this," said Mark Themig, who manages the regional parks in Scott County. "The entrance road has exceeded its life expectancy. The pavement is failing. We experience significant potholes."
The Hennepin-based Three Rivers Park District, which owns Cleary, decided to take the opportunity to make other improvements. The walkways around the visitor center, which are also deteriorating, will be replaced. A handicap access ramp to the building will be moved to a more convenient location.
Here's a quick guide to some changes coming up, how they fit in the bigger picture, and who's covering the cost:
A polluted lake
Cleary Lake has excessive nutrients, which can lead to unwanted algae growth. As part of the improvements, the district will add new landscaping designed to filter stormwater that runs from the grounds and roadways into the lake. Depressions in the ground will hold materials like sand, layered with vegetation and wood chips. As the rainwater flows through, they will remove some of the nutrients.
"There's more stuff that needs to be done. The park is only a small part of the watershed that goes to that lake," said Paul Nelson, the natural resource manager for the county. "The park, by being a leader, and setting an example, is taking steps to address that with their facilities."
One advantage to installing the features in a public park, he said: It will help educate visitors about the wider issue of stormwater management.
The renovations will also offer some perks for visitors who would rather learn about golf then stormwater.
Officials are expanding the driving range from 25 to 40 tees and redoing the practice green to be more like the greens that players encounter at courses.
The golf facilities have been well used in recent years in the park's First Tee program, which teaches golf to young people, Themig said.
At Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve, another Three Rivers-owned park in Scott County, staff members have recently begun a 75-acre prairie restoration project. The park will plant Minnesota wildflowers and vegetation in the area, which should help restore native wildlife as well as the native landscape.
The bigger picture
The improvements at Cleary Lake Regional Park are just one mark of the increasing focus on parks in Scott County.
Over the last decade, the county has opened its first two regional parks, and two more parks are in the works. The opening of the Spring Lake Regional Park last year helped spark a 25 percent increase in park visitors, the largest growth in the metro area.
At Cedar Lake Farm Regional Park the county expanded the season and hours of operation last year. Recreation options have also increased, with the addition of new programs modeled on those at Three Rivers-owned parks. In 2012, Cedar Lake Farm began offering a growing number of classes in skills like kayaking, fishing, even archery.
At least some of the flurry of activity in Scott County parks can be attributed to the 2010 strengthening of an existing partnership between the county and the Three Rivers Park District.
The organizations share stuff and expertise, but neither gives up the authority to make decisions about the parks it owns.
Three Rivers is based in suburban Hennepin County, where it has taxing authority. It owns parks outside of Hennepin, including the two in Scott County. But the 2010 move was the first time Three Rivers accepted management responsibility for parks it doesn't own.
Some Three Rivers commissioners expressed concern that suburban Hennepin taxpayers would subsidize parks the district didn't own and that primarily serve Scott County residents. But three years into the partnership, officials say, it's working.
"I think it's really benefiting both Three Rivers and Scott County residents," said Daniel Freeman, vice-chair of the Three Rivers board of commissioners. "It's one of those situations where you like to see governments working together to share resources. Taxpayers benefit anytime you can share resources back and forth."
Scott County, which provided some funding for Three Rivers parks within its borders before the partnership, increased its contribution from about $655,000 in 2012 to more than $1 million in 2014. That allowed Three Rivers to stop providing money for the operational costs of any parks in Scott County, even those it owns, officials say.
When it comes to capital investments like those at Cleary Lake, the partnership has relied heavily on state funding and grants.
The improvements at Cleary Lake will cost just over $2 million. Much of that money will come from state bonding and Legacy Amendment grants. About $130,000 will come from the county and the Scott County Watershed Management Organization. Three Rivers will not provide any funding for the project.
"What we've been able to do is, we've been able to find pools and pots of money through several grants," Freeman said. Three Rivers is using its management partnership with Scott County as a model for work with other communities. Talks are underway for similar agreements, where Three Rivers would take over the operations of parks without purchasing them, in Golden Valley and Robbinsdale.
Scott parks manager Themig said the real advantage of the partnership is that it allows each organization to specialize in its area of expertise.
"For example the park district doesn't have access to highway engineers, who build roads for a living. Through this partnership the park district has gotten access to that." At the same time, Scott County has been able to tap into Three Rivers' extensive natural resource and park management expertise to help expand offerings at its own parks.
Still, Freeman acknowledged conflicts over funding investments in the parks could arise in the future.
"Those resources may not always be there. If they're not, how do these capital improvements get paid?"
Dylan Peers McCoy is a freelance writer.