Several elements of a landmark downtown Minneapolis park beside the Vikings stadium will likely be put on ice until more private money rolls into an ongoing fundraising effort.
A proposal unveiled Friday to hold off on the construction of two buildings, lawn-side terraces and a water plaza signaled a note of caution in the city’s goals to construct a unique attraction in an up-and-coming corner of downtown. The park matter has taken on growing urgency at City Hall, since a preliminary version of the space will open this summer.
The new plan to delay elements of the project is slated for an initial vote by the City Council next week. A report prepared by city staff said they were being deferred “in recognition of the pace of fundraising.” But key players in the fundraising effort stressed Friday that they were making strong progress toward their $22 million goal.
“This action is to allow for moneys to be spent as they come in, but no further build-out would take place beyond moneys raised,” said Council Member Jacob Frey, who represents the area.
The change also comes amid growing concern about how the city will fund operations and maintenance of the park, now expected to reach about $1.9 million a year. “I predict that the day will come — and probably soon — that we’ll be asked to contribute more public tax dollars to this space for the operations and maintenance,” Council Member Lisa Bender said during a City Council meeting on Friday.
She doubted that any such request would receive support unless an agreement with the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) over the use of the park was modified to lower the number of days allotted for private use.
The first phase of park construction is expected to cost $10.8 million, about $4.2 million less than the full plan. The city still needs to raise $6 million to cover that initial cost, some of which will be reserved for operations.
Steve Cramer, president of the Downtown Council, said fundraising has not kept up with an accelerated construction timeline. The original plan was to complete a basic, grassy park by July — in line with the stadium’s opening — with the full build-out to follow. Now the plan is to build as much as possible by this summer and delay elements that aren’t yet funded.
“If we had stuck to the original schedule, we wouldn’t be in a funding crunch,” said Cramer, whose organization formed the conservancy leading the fundraising effort.
The full fundraising goal, which includes money for operations, is $22 million. About half of that has been raised so far, including contributions from the city, the Minnesota Vikings and various private entities. Cramer said they still intend to raise the remainder.
Mayor Betsy Hodges, a co-chair of the fundraising committee, added in a statement: “From the beginning there was the expectation the construction of the Commons could be a multiphase project. The ultimate vision of the Commons remains the same and due to our strong fundraising we are on track to build the Interim Commons by mid-2016.”
Getting this far has required other city commitments. Acquiring the land, demolishing the former Star Tribune building and preparing a basic park were made possible by $18.8 million in debt issued by the city. That is expected to be repaid through nearby parking revenue.
Questions linger about how the city will pay for the park over the long term. Maintaining parks is typically the purview of the city’s semi-independent Park Board, but that body declined to operate the Commons fearing the costs would be too onerous.
Frey said Friday that the amount raised so far will cover operations and maintenance into 2017. But the structure for covering it in the future remains unsettled. “Clearly we’ll need a collage of different funding sources, from concession and fee revenue to a possibility of assessments,” Frey said.
The staff report said revenue sources could include direct city contributions, ongoing philanthropy, income from concessions and space rental, sponsorships, assessments and “value capture mechanisms from property and/or sales activity generated in the vicinity.”
However, deferring construction of a proposed cafe building removes a key source of money that would help pay for park operations. Staff estimate that the spaces in the new version of the plan could generate between $26,500 and $100,000 a year.
Frey said adding a restaurant space to the plan in the future — rather than just a cafe — could bring in major revenue.
“A restaurant with a full kitchen … located on arguably the most pristine dynamic space in the entire city, has the potential to substantially pay for maintenance and operations,” Frey said.
Bender’s suggestion to reopen the park usage agreement with the MSFA alludes to another concern: how often the park will be occupied for private activities during football games and other events. That agreement allows for private usage of some or all of the park for up to 80 days a year.
That number was higher partly due to the time reserved to assembled and take down tent structures. But the MSFA has since finalized an agreement to lease the nearby morgue parking lot for erecting tents and other structures needed for stadium events.
MSFA chair Michele Kelm-Helgen said Friday that she needs to talk directly with the city to understand specifically what they would like to change in the agreement.