ST. CLOUD — After years of underfunding the city's dozens of neighborhood parks, St. Cloud is poised to invest $20 million in park and trail amenities in the next three years.
That's thanks to St. Cloud voters, who on Nov. 8 soundly approved a tax increase to fund the much needed improvements. Officials estimate the average residential homeowner will pay an additional $58 per year in taxes over the next two decades.
"We have close to 100 parks — over 1,600 acres of parkland — and the challenge we've always had with neighborhood parks is there's really not a good funding source other than property taxes," said St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, who said parks often get left behind in annual budgets because the city must focus on adequately funding public safety and other essentials, like roads and sewers.
Many of the city's regional parks — Eastman Park, in the heart of the city by Lake George, or Whitney Park, which holds multiple athletic fields and the YMCA — are funded in part by a regional sales tax that helps distribute costs to those who use the facilities but don't necessarily pay city taxes.
Scott Zlotnik, who oversees the city's parks and recreation department, said the referendum's success — with nearly two-thirds of voters saying yes to the tax increase — shows how important parks are to the community. And that appreciation has grown since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zlotnik said.
"A percentage of the population had never really utilized parks [before the pandemic] but that was really one of the only things they had — parks and open spaces and outdoor leisure opportunities," he said.
In the coming months, city staff will begin identifying possible projects with input from the park and rec advisory board and residents, Zlotnik said. The funds can be used to maintain and create parks, trails and green spaces. The money will likely be used to purchase necessities like new benches and garbage cans, as well as create more accessible spaces.
The funding could also be used to convert tennis courts to pickleball courts or wading pools — which have been closed for the past three years due to the pandemic, a lifeguard shortage and high maintenance costs — into splash pads.
Zlotnik said the city will also try to leverage private funding to stretch the tax dollars even further, similar to the renovation of Eastman Park and Lake George more than 15 years ago, where the Rotary Club of St. Cloud helped with the $3.5 million project.
Despite the strong success for park funding, a separate sales tax question on the ballot to fund up to $21 million in improvements at the Municipal Athletic Complex (MAC) failed with only about 47% of voters in favor.
It was just one of three sales tax proposals in the state — out of 21 proposed projects on ballots this year — that were denied by voters, according to the League of Minnesota Cities.
Successful proposals statewide included $6 million to repair and expand the ice arena in Cloquet, $10 million for a community recreation center in Litchfield and $31.6 million for regional library and community center improvements in Moorhead.
St. Cloud received $10 million from the Legislature's 2020 bonding bill to make improvements at the regional sports facility and the proposed sales tax would have funded the city's share of the project to renovate the MAC's ice arenas, improve the baseball field and upgrade accessibility.
Kleis said the MAC has tremendous economic value for the city and the surrounding community because it brings people into the region for tournaments and games, who in turn spend money at hotels, stores and restaurants. But if voters don't go to baseball games or have kids who play hockey there, they might not be familiar with the facility, Kleis said.
"The voters said 'no' and I believe you listen to the will of the voters," Kleis said, noting officials will still push forward on the project. He said he plans to ask the Legislature if the city can forgo its required local match or extend the timeline to meet the match and instead try to raise money from private donations.
"We've got to have amenities for quality of life to keep people in our community or bring employees into the community," he said.