Live in the suburbs, play in the city.
That's been the routine for years as residents of counties ringing Minneapolis and St. Paul flock to Lake Calhoun, Como Park and other regional trails and parks in the urban center, while their own counties scrimp on parks.
Even as some suburban counties say they are doing more to pull their own recreational weight, new numbers from the Metropolitan Council show the pattern persists, and the numbers raise questions about imbalances in the system: Are some places enduring mobs of outsiders while others duck the tab?
The most extreme imbalance comes in south-metro Dakota County, whose residents use parks outside their own borders more than a million times each year.
The most heavily used are in Minneapolis, where officials say they're flattered by the popularity but would appreciate more money from their neighbors.
"We are not getting nearly enough support, and Minneapolis residents subsidize the regional system extensively," said John Erwin, president of the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board.
His counterparts in the affluent southern suburbs say they understand the concern and are writing much bigger checks than they used to.
Dakota County has upped its annual capital investment in parks from just $1 million five years ago to about $12 million today. Scott County's senior managers are recommending an increase in what they pay the suburban Hennepin parks, which runs a handful of parks in the suburban county, to make sure that "Hennepin County dollars are not being used to operate parks in Scott County," County Administrator Gary Shelton said.
And Minneapolis and St. Paul parks have seen their share of total regional park visits drop from 66 percent to 54 percent since 2000.
But many also agree that patterns of preference are so deeply ingrained that it won't be easy to shift them.
"Runners swarm to the lakes," said Jessie Mosier, assistant manager at the Running Room outlet in Burnsville. Although she loves the options at home in Dakota County, she gets the attraction, including the safety factor: the comfort you feel when there are lots of people around and it isn't just you in the suburban woods.
In her first outing last week to trails at Dakota County's Lebanon Hills Regional Park for a 7 a.m. run, she recalls seeing only three people other than her own group -- about the number you'd pass at Lake Harriet in a second or two.
Numbers don't lie
Partly because it's more densely settled, with parks and trails that are easy to reach, Minneapolis gets almost 40 times as many parks and trails visits in a given year as it has residents. Dakota County's multiple: just three.
Both central cities are major net gainers, while all of the suburbs see a flow outward. Suburban Hennepin actually exports more parks visits than Dakota, though it's smaller in proportion to its population.
Dakota officials know there's an issue here.
They've launched a parks branding campaign and stepped up promotions. At the county fair last week, elected officials joined staff in handing out brochures and green rubber bracelets printed with "Dakota County Parks -- Forever Wild."
"We're doing everything in our power to make sure the public is well aware of the natural resources we have and the park amenities," said commissioner Tom Egan.
The $12 million annual spending these days includes construction of a new gathering center at Spring Lake Park Reserve, remodeling at Lebanon Hills, planning for a new regional park and the addition of miles of trails touted as linear parks or "greenways."
"Parks systems take decades to complete," said Steve Sullivan, the county's parks director. One-fifth of the land Dakota envisions for its parks and trails still has to be acquired, for example. "Most of the development in this parks system has occurred in the past decade."
In comparison, some of the most visited parks -- think Como Zoo -- have had drawing power for decades.
Attracting users to new places isn't as easy as slapping down some asphalt, parks professionals add. The shore along suburban lakes and rivers is often privately owned, making lakefront trail loops unusual. Nor do many suburbs have the subtler elements that users may never think about, such as the elegant mansions lining Minneapolis lakes.
The regional park system is designed to cross-subsidize popular areas such as Minneapolis, and the park board's Erwin notes that Minneapolis residents sometimes forget that places like Calhoun are not purely local amenities at all. They are regional parks with regional funding. "We have done well in receiving Met Council funding and appreciate it very much," he said. "But we feel underfunded, overall. Just harvesting milfoil takes a huge proportion of the money we get."
Not just Dakota
If Dakota's numbers are especially out of balance, Scott County has also struggled, letting some would-be parkland sit undeveloped for decades as it raced to keep up with other needs.
It chose to play little brother to suburban Hennepin's Three Rivers system, which operates three regional parks in Scott County, to the chagrin of some. "Why should Hennepin County taxpayers pay for Scott park lands?" asked Three Rivers board member Joan Peters when a 10-year deficit of $850,000 came to light last year.
Now Scott's senior managers are pressing for more balance. Shelton suggested recently that the county increase its contribution to Three Rivers by $130,000 a year.
None of the tensions were evident last week when a Met Council analyst unveiled the latest batch of parks visitation data to members of a council committee.
Jan Youngquist introduced the topic as "feel-good news," including the explosion of use since the first counts in the 1970s, when just 5 million people used the whole system. Now the Chain of Lakes alone draws that number and the system overall attracts 44 million visits.
"We beat out the Mall of America," she said.