Metro-area park agencies will devote more of the money they receive in state Legacy grants to “connecting people and the outdoors” after a near-unanimous vote Wednesday by the full Metropolitan Council.
The 16-1 decision means that administrators of regional parks and trails will allocate 5 percent of their Park and Trails Legacy funding to that mission by 2018-19, 7 percent by 2020-21, and 10 percent by 2022-23.
The one opponent was Hennepin County Council Member Gail Dorfman, who questioned the point of committing millions of dollars to parks outreach. “Are we sure that increased marketing and promotion is the answer?” she said before the vote.
But Wendy Wulff, the council’s liaison on the Metropolitan Parks and Open Spaces Commission, said the majority of park agencies support the plan.
Research analyst Raintry Salk said parks advocates have expressed concern for several years about diminishing interest in nature-based recreation, such as fishing, camping and observing wildlife. That “significant decline” puts at risk the very purpose of regional parks and preserves, she said.
The issue came to the Metropolitan Council because the statewide Legacy plan calls for spending for outreach as one of four key missions, she said.
The graduated approach to outreach spending was intended to establish a “minimum threshold” for connecting people with the outdoors, as defined in the 2040 regional parks policy plan, the Met Council has said.
Just a few weeks ago, the outreach proposal drew fire from Minneapolis’ parks Superintendent Jayne Miller, who warned in a recent letter to the Met Council that its costs would exceed $300,000 a year.
“If Minneapolis spent that kind of money on fliers, advertising, programs, etc., instead of reconstructing trails and building the new things the community wants, we would be seriously questioned by our constituents,” Miller wrote.
Another critic of the plan, Catherine Zimmer of Women Observing Wildlife-Minnesota, said in a letter to the Met Council Parks and Open Space Commission that “if minimum percentages for Legacy funds are to be set, then the lack of spending on natural resource restoration and conservation must be corrected as well.”
To the contrary, Minnesota citizens’ primary reasons for supporting the Legacy Amendment are clean water and preserving nature, she wrote.
Met Council documents show concern over low use of metro parks by communities of color. A March 2014 study was undertaken “to identify barriers to regional park visitation among communities of color.” A 2008 study “showed that use of our regional parks did not represent the overall demographic makeup of the region, specifically for communities of color.”
However, Wednesday’s decision to set aside money for outreach never was intended to target communities of color, said Kate Brickman, a Met Council spokeswoman. “Any operational expense connecting people to the outdoors — all people, not just underserved populations — would be considered an eligible expense,” she said.
The No. 1 barrier named among focus group participants was “lack of awareness” about where to find regional parks, how to get to them, and what to do there.
Met Council data show a steep increase in estimated annual regional park visits in recent years — 38 million in 2009 compared with 47.3 million in 2015. But it also shows a steady decline in the rate of growth over those six years.
Salk said those visitation numbers don’t accurately reflect overall park use because they count each visit to a park separately, even if the same person is making those visits.
Met Council staffers have noted that to draw new visitors, Minnesota’s state parks are dedicating 17 percent of their Legacy dollars to outreach, nearly six times as big a share as the metro area’s regional parks.