Steve Michaud, Lakeville's first and only parks director, has spent the past 38 years balancing the needs of residents and politicians as he built the city's green space from three parks to 1,600 acres. Besides 100 miles of bike and walking trails, the system includes about 60 parks, skating rinks, playing fields and an arts center.
Michaud, 62, known for his get-it-done attitude, is retiring July 16. He leaves an extensive park system and a tough assignment: finding a successor for a job that is part salesman, part conservationist, part manager and part diplomat.
"We will never replace Steve and all that he has done for this community," said City Administrator Steve Mielke.
As the gregarious Michaud prepares to depart, he said he worries about whether a park system serving 56,000 residents can keep up with another 30,000 expected by about 2030. He said he is concerned about providing enough playing fields and neighborhood parks now that the City Council has cut by about 25 percent the fees developers pay to fund local parks.
While Mayor Mark Bellows disagrees on the need for future neighborhood parks, he said he has nothing but accolades for Michaud. "His fingerprints are all over the community," Bellows said. "He was a commanding figure. He led the parks department and the community. He had a vision and pursued it and brought it to fruition."
Bellows said larger parks are needed, but fewer neighborhood parks may be required as the population ages and because many families have backyard play equipment. "All that needs to be reevaluated through a visioning process being planned for the whole community," he said.
Michaud helped create the city's park dedication fund in the early 1980s.
Michaud noted that playing fields are already fully booked from spring through fall and more fields are needed now, as well as to handle future population growth.
Michaud said some of his projects, such as the old police station being remodeled for seniors, veterans and the city historical society, have thrust him into controversy over the years. Bellows calls the $1.1 million renovation "a financial boondoggle."
"I've been at meetings where 50 people with spears were ready to tear me apart; and walked out where 48 supported me. There is always somebody who doesn't like it," Michaud said. "We try to balance the needs of everybody." That requires diplomacy and time-consuming trust building as project details are hashed out, he said.
"I always present the facts and the truth and hope both sides express their opinions and that common sense prevails when the votes are made."
It started in a cabin
The son of a Massachusetts iron worker, Michaud came to the Midwest on a football scholarship to Yankton College in South Dakota. There he met his future wife, Terri Olson, a former Inver Grove Heights beauty queen, and after graduating they settled in West St. Paul and had two children. Michaud was finishing a master's degree in park administration when Lakeville hired him in 1974 as a summer manager for the recently purchased Antlers Park on Lake Marion.
The city offered him an old, one-bedroom cabin on a point at Antlers beach. The cabin featured mice, flickering lights and no hot water. He opened the beach after helping clear hundreds of storm-toppled cottonwoods. He also planted many oak, ash and maple trees. By fall, the city of more than 8,000 hired him as its first full-time parks and recreation director.
Some of the city's park dedication funds were used over the years to acquire stretches of land for a 5.5-mile bike trail around most of Lake Marion. The final two-mile leg will be paved this fall. Michaud said he obtained an $826,400 federal transportation enhancement grant and used park dedication funds to cover most of the rest of the $1.3 million project cost.
Michaud is lauded for his grantsmanship, fundraising prowess and collaborative deal-making with residents, businesses and developers to build a park system admired by his peers.
"Steve is an icon in the park and recreation profession," said Randy Distad, parks director in neighboring Farmington. "Lakeville's trail system is astounding: the number of miles of trails and connections that make it a pedestrian-friendly community. It is what everybody strives for."
The hundred-plus miles of bike, cross country, snowmobile and other trails are Michaud's greatest legacy, said Bob Erickson, who worked with him as city administrator until 2004.
"He is a consummate grant writer," Erickson said. He estimated Michaud won about $5 million in county, state and federal grants during Erickson's 14 years as administrator. He noted Michaud worked to bring the Ironman Bike Ride to the city and last year collaborated with the Lakeville School District to build a disc golf course being finished up this summer in a wooded area by Kenwood Trail Middle School.
'A good job'
Michaud helped plan two parks referendums. City voters approved $1.8 million in park bonds in 1985 and another $3.86 million in 1995. The funds helped to build trails and soccer and baseball field complexes and bought land for six large parks, including Casperson, with a double boat ramp and large parking lot on Lake Marion. Michaud said Casperson was carved out of a gravel bluff for free after he negotiated with a contractor who accepted the gravel for his work.
Michaud regularly monitors the parks in his 38-square-mile city, of which nearly 7 percent is parks and green space.
He knows the regulars like Don Pahl, 77, a retired roofer often found on a lawn chair under a shady tree in Casperson Park. Asked about Michaud, who swaps fishing and hunting stories with him, Pahl said:
"He's done a good job."
Jim Adams • 952-746-3283