Last year, Steve Simon was walking his dog near his Minneapolis home when he saw a new sign in Lyndale Farmstead park. It was a historical marker, similar to the one shown above, that made Simon wonder why the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board was trumpeting its history with permanent signs.
I shared Simon's curiosity about the markers. I learned they were an attempt by the park board to mark its 125th anniversary with a combination of education and public relations.
"Everyone understands that the park board has kind of an image problem," said Andrea Weber, a landscape architect for the park board, who heads the marker project. "This is part of our attempt to get the word out, to show that we have done some wonderful things."
You'll get no argument from me there. Just about everybody I know considers the park system one of the best reasons to live in Minneapolis.
The project was also launched at a time when the park board feared it would lose its independence from the City Council, a threat that has since ebbed. Weber emphasized that this project was initiated by Superintendent Jon Gurban. I couldn't reach Gurban on the phone, but his name appears twice on each of the markers.
The project was introduced to the park commissioners in December 2008 as a fait accompli, rather than an item for their approval. Nevertheless, Weber said, "commissioners voiced 100 percent support when I presented the project."
The agenda item presented to commissioners indicated that 12 markers would be erected. That number has since grown to 25, which, at $2,500 each, adds up to $62,000. The money comes from operations and maintenance budgets, and the park board staff assembles the monuments itself, so it's apparently not considered a capital expense. Each marker is the same on one side - with a general history of the park system - while on the other side are 22 different stories tailored to the locations, with the history of playgrounds, the Chain of Lakes, recreation centers, the Lake Harriet Bandshells, bike paths and the like.
Simon, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who uses parks every day, thinks that at a time in which everyone is cutting budgets and services, the park board has no business spending money on something like this. "If you're concerned about image, this is exactly the wrong thing to do. It shows very poor priorities and decision making."
Do you agree? Is this a good expenditure for an agency with a $58 million operating budget last year? Should government agencies spiff up their image with concrete and steel?