A week from Tuesday, South St. Paul residents will decide whether they are ready to pay an average of $8 a month to give the city's parks and recreation facilities an overhaul.
The city is asking voters to approve a plan to remodel its 51-year-old ice arena, build new sports fields, and turn 87 open acres along the Mississippi River into a hallmark park with baseball and softball fields as well as non-sports recreation like a performing arts building and areas for playgrounds, picnics, and taking in the views of the river.
The referendum, which would allow the purchase of $10 million in bonds, would cost $98 a year, or about $8 a month, for the owner of a home valued at $150,000. The redevelopment of McMorrow Field, Wakota Civic Arena and Kaposia Landing, the former landfill along the bank of the river, were identified as the top priorities in a January 2013 survey commissioned by the city, said Parks and Recreation Director Chris Esser.
The city waited several years to put the referendum to voters, Esser said, until the effects of the recession softened. At the same time, he said, interest rates are still low, making now a good time to issue the bonds.
Availability of land is also a factor. Esser said that as a first-ring suburb, South St. Paul doesn't have surplus land to buy up for new parks. Instead it needs to redevelop land to fit patterns of how people use it. Youth football and soccer are becoming more popular, he said, but all the major ball sports, including softball and baseball for adults and children, have a problem with lack of fields. Teams often schedule "away" games just to give other teams an opportunity to practice on South St. Paul's fields, he said.
Esser also said that for 23 years, the city's parks have done without the bond funding that a big expansion of a parks system needs.
"I was in high school in 1990," he said of the city's last referendum, which funded the city's splash pool. Since then, residents have voted down the only referendum, which forced the closure of an outdoor pool.
But in the January survey, residents were lukewarm on the idea of the bond proposal: 50 percent were in favor, 41 percent opposed and 9 percent undecided. That was enough to prompt the city to delay the referendum, which could have been held in May.
"People were happy with the way things are," said Mayor Beth Baumann. Apart from the redevelopment of Kaposia landing, she said, "they didn't really see the need for some of this stuff."
In the months since, Baumann said, local sports groups including hockey, soccer, softball and baseball have been advocating for the proposal. In November, representatives of youth associations for each of those sports formed a group, called Revitalize Recreation South St. Paul, that is making phone calls and sending a mailer in support of the referendum, in addition to spreading the word through sporting events.
The city has also been "working hard to get the word out," Esser said. He has made more than 20 presentations and held three open houses in the last several months.
That advocacy makes Baumann "cautiously optimistic on this vote," she said. In her experience, the undecided voters are typically seniors, proponents are people with kids in sports, and opponents are against the plan on the basis of taxes. In low-turnout elections like the referendum, she said, the outcome will depend on which group gets its supporters out to vote.
If the referendum passes, Esser said, planning and some building work would begin within months, and most work would take about three years, with the whole project slated to finish in 2020. The city would start the mechanical upgrade and remodeling of the ice arena in May, hoping to finish by the end of the year. Later this year, the city hopes to start work on Kaposia Landing's four softball fields and baseball field.
When the fields are done in 2017 — Esser said growing grass is the longest part of construction — redeveloping McMorrow field would begin. (The city will stagger construction so McMorrow's fields can be used until Kaposia Landing's fields are completed.) Esser also hopes to hold public meetings starting this spring or summer to see what people want Kaposia Landing's performing arts building and playground to look like.
If the referendum doesn't pass, Esser said, all work would be shelved except the mechanical renovations to the ice arena, which needs an updated cooling system. Paying for that improvement without bonds would have to be offset by raising taxes or cutting other city projects.
Graison Hensley Chapman is a Northfield freelance writer.