Q&A with Park Board Superintendent Jon Gurban

In the face of a worldwide economic crisis and an ever-tightening budget, Jon Gurban talks planning, sustainability and survival

Last October, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board adopted a comprehensive plan more than 40 years in the making, a document that would help guide and shape its next 14 years. A year later, as budgets have constricted, as the world economy has slid downward and as the city’s demographics have continued to shift, the Southwest Journal sat down with Superintendent Jon Gurban to discuss the plan’s impact and how it’s guided the park system so far.

SWJ: It’s been a little over a year since the comprehensive plan was adopted. How’s the first year under its guidance gone?

Gurban: I think we advanced the comp plan. I think our community engagement is really solid. Our empowerment to staff is really important. Understanding the demographics of our community — demographics is not a foreign word to our staff, particularly to our programming staff, who take a look at the immediate neighborhood and say, ‘Gee, maybe I ought to be trying this sort of program or communicate in this sort of fashion.’

SWJ: Is that new?

: Absolutely. I think we knew it intuitively a little bit, but I think it’s become a more formalized process. It’s a given now that we look at demographics. I think prior to the comp plan and working on the comp plan, it was special — it was extraordinary if we looked hard at the demographics of the community. …

There’s a notion that once you build a park, then you’re done. And it isn’t. A park is a living thing. It should be changing with the community that is around it and that it represents.

In the 1950s, the greatest example is everybody was playing horseshoes. But we don’t really need the horseshoe pits in the neighborhood parks anymore, so we don’t do those. What we need somewhere along the line is we need a cricket field. You know, our population is getting more interested in that.

Our comp plan recognizes the diversity.

SWJ: And how about community engagement? What’s happened on that front?

Gurban: Well, we have a pilot project going right now called the Lakes District Council. And that seems to be working pretty good. And now our intention in 2009, 2010 is to get district councils in the River District and in the Minnehaha District. I think we’ll be able to do that.

SWJ: Anything not gone according to plan?

Gurban: Things take so long. The park dedication [fee, which the Park Board has signed off on but is awaiting City Council action] is number one on that list. It still perplexes me that there’s hesitation on the part of decision-makers toward park dedication.

SWJ: Sustainability seems to be the universal theme of the entire comprehensive plan. Was that on purpose?

Gurban: Yes. We want to be sustainable in the sense of right-sizing our organization to be able to succeed into the future. We want to be able to offer economic opportunities for people. We want to provide open access to everyone.

So you take a strategy and say, OK, where can you make improvements, both subtle and dramatic. Subtle ones are like, we won’t use paper cups anymore. Then there are other things such as, you know, we’ve got great influence in our external community. Let’s take some of the events that we’re tied into and let’s help them become sustainable.

SWJ: The comprehensive plan lists 2020 as its target date. Looking at how 2008 has gone, will every goal be reached by then?

Gurban: You know, this is kind of an interesting thing where there’s somewhat a difference of opinion on. Everybody wants to set these dates. It’s like the old Russian five-year plans.

You do have to establish some vision period there, but it’s more important to get the next step right and do it well than it is to do it fast so that you hit this date that’s out here.

We’ve been around for 125 years. It’s more important for us to do things correctly than just quickly.

SWJ: So what’s on tap for 2009?

Gurban: Well, we need financial independence. It’s very tough. Because of financial constraints, it’s one of those situations where you’re very conservative with improvements and repair. You know, things take longer. Probably the best example we have is in the comp plan, through surveys, the urban forest came out as either the first or second most important thing to people living in the community. Our forestry department would suggest that a trim cycle to keep a good, healthy forest is five years. Our trim cycle is pushing out to eight to 10 years now.

So there’s a No. 1 priority of the citizens, and we don’t have the financial wherewithal to respond as effectively as we want.

SWJ: That’s kind of a pushback on sustainability.

Gurban: Yes, it is. But there’s some tough choices coming. Do you buy a new police car or do you trim your trees quicker or do you have a program for needy children or do you provide an amenity for our cohort of people in this community that are physically challenged?

I’m personally embarrassed at the level of support we provide for therapeutic recreation. …

But if you look in the [proposed 2009] budget, in the context of Minneapolis, we’re doing pretty good. We haven’t closed any recreation centers, but schools have been closed. The school enrollment’s declining — ours isn’t at the parks. They’re busier than ever. Unlike the [Minneapolis] Library Board, we’re still there. And prior to the library board [merging with the county], they were reducing, shifting responsibilities down to the neighborhood. We haven’t done that.

So in that context, we’re doing pretty good.