If park officials have their way, more people will experience the Three Rivers Park District without ever setting foot in a Three Rivers park.
That’s because the Hennepin County-based park district is shifting priorities from building up parks and amenities to bringing the massive system right to residents, especially those living in first-ring suburbs like Richfield and Robbinsdale.
Officials say they realize that they need to offer a park experience to people who may not have easy access to west metro regional parks.
“We often in years past had a philosophy of, ‘If you build it, they will come’ — if we build these parks, if we build these facilities, the public will come out and visit them,” Superintendent Boe Carlson said. “And while certainly that’s the case, we’re recognizing that there’s still significant barriers to getting people to be a part of our park system.”
For the first time this year, the park district started Explorer Camps with a dozen programs that were housed at local suburban parks. Three Rivers has started a Parks on the Go program, sending a van to more than 200 community events to promote the park district, also mostly in first-ring suburbs.
And the park district will start pocket parks next year, using trailheads or underutilized park space by adding a playground or program.
There are plans to expand other outreach programs in 2017 as well. At Centennial Park in Brooklyn Center, Three Rivers is planning to add a trailhead and play area.
The park district is looking to revamp a nature area at the Crystal airport to connect to the trail network. At Taft Park in Richfield, the district plans to expand services with paddling programs and outreach.
“Things are changing, and this next phase of Three Rivers needs to do a better job of reaching people it hasn’t reached,” said John Gunyou, chairman of Three Rivers’ board of commissioners.
The response from county officials has been favorable.
“Thank you for your innovation and attention to the inner-ring suburbs,” Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat told park officials at a budget review meeting this week.
Opat, who lives in Robbinsdale, said those suburbs “pay the same as the farther western part of Hennepin County for Three Rivers, yet most of the properties are quite a bit removed.”
The policy marks a change in philosophy for a park district that’s long been focused more on land preservation instead of park programming. It also reflects a growing interest in the Twin Cities in improving access to parks for increasingly diverse and aging suburbs.
Three Rivers owns and operates more than two dozen park reserves, regional parks and regional trails on about 27,000 acres, mostly in suburban Hennepin County but also in other counties.
The park district is proposing a $36.7 million budget for 2017, with a $41.5 million property tax levy. While that includes an increase in the park district’s operating fund, there’s a decrease in the park district’s debt service levy, so taxpayers will see no increase in taxes.
The park district has scheduled no major changes in park user fees. While the park district is still adding trail connections, there are no large-scale project planned for 2017.
This year, Three Rivers has seen a 1.3 percent increase in park visits, the opposite of the downward trend in visits that park systems elsewhere have experienced.
“I think it’s because of this approach we’re taking — we’re being responsive to what people are looking for,” Gunyou said. “We have to evolve like everybody else.”