Park Board ponders how changing demographics might change parks

Walt Dziedzic is a big hockey fan -- his son Joe is a former Minnesota Mr. Hockey winner -- yet the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Commissioner readily admits that the Park Board has too many ice skating rinks.

"I am a great advocate of ice skating … but I am a realist. The realist in me says there are not enough kids skating for 29 rinks," Dziedzic said. "We are dealing with a different population. The majority of school kids in Minneapolis do not skate."

Ice rinks are but one example of how the Park Board may rethink the recreational opportunities it provides -- and where it puts its money.

One recent example: the Park Board recently overhauled Currie Field, 1419 S. 5th St. in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, converting two baseball fields to soccer fields because soccer is more popular with children from immigrant families.

On the other end of the age and income spectrum, Superintendent Jon Gurban said he watches the new high-end housing going up along the river. It means the city is attracting older adults with more discretionary income -- and the Park Board needs to offer more "gentle recreation" opportunities.

"If we look at that emerging demographic, we will make sure we have good trails, good benches, bird-watching opportunities and more volunteer opportunities as well," Gurban said. The retirees "can be a great asset to our volunteer programs."

To help understand the changing demands on the park system, the Park Board invited former Minnesota State Demographer Hazel Reinhardt to talk about the city's population shift.

The Park Board's goal is to write a new Master Plan. The Board's last Master Plan -- the 1960s-era Brightbill Study -- needs retooling, Gurban said.

Data dump

Reinhardt's presentation brought trend information together in one convenient spot, as park leaders try to chart a new course.

According to her analysis of census data since 1950, Minneapolis has:

– More single-person households: 40 percent in 2000 compared to 28 percent in 1960.

– More female-headed households: 34 percent in 2000 compared to 17 percent in 1970.

– Greater diversity: The city was 2 percent minority in 1950 compared to 37 percent in 2000. (The percentage of foreign-born city residents has increased more than 50 percent in the same time frame, and was nearly 15 percent in 2000.)

– More older whites and younger minorities: More than 60 percent of the city's population aged 19 and under are minority, while 84 percent of the population aged 55 and older are white.

– Fewer kids under 18 years old: 22 percent in 2000 versus 26 percent in 1950.

– Less median household income than the rest of the country: In the 2000, city's median household income was $36,584 compared to $47,668 in the United States (in 1997 dollars). The city's household income in 1950 exceeded U.S. median income, but has lagged ever since.

Master Plan

Gurban said the Park Board is in the final stages of restructuring staff to get more resources and control into the neighborhoods. Once completed, he will focus more attention on the Master Plan.

He wants "to be very close to the neighborhoods and understand what they want and need in the park delivery system," Gurban said, noting he is already making the rounds of neighborhood meetings.

He anticipated more formal process this fall, with the "main ingredients" of a comprehensive plan in place by Dec. 31.

Community discussions will focus on specific issues, such as skateboard parks, youth athletics and seniors programs, rather than on the Master Plan itself. "I think you succeed more when you have specific issues. If it gets too general, everything gets lost," he said.

One guiding principle could be to aim for quality not quantity, he said. He applied it to tennis courts.

"We are oversupplied with tennis courts, and we are undermaintained," he said. "What we need to do is, as we repair tennis courts, reduce the number of tennis courts and build them properly."

Gurban's role

Despite his tenuous tenure as interim superintendent, Gurban is pushing for organizational change and moving the Master Plan forward.

Gurban took over as parks chief this year, following a fractious 5-4 board vote in December. He has a one-year contract while the divided Park Board embarks on yet another superintendent search.

Gurban is not taking a caretaker role.

The park system's current structure has too much top-down control, he said. Given the city's growing diversity, the Park Board's recreation center staff needs more flexibility to meet neighborhood needs.

"The Minneapolis of the 1950s was so homogeneous -- 98 percent white," Gurban said. "It meant that whatever you did in one part of the city, you could probably do in another part of the city and you would probably be pretty successful. And yet if you take that same approach today, it is virtually a recipe to not be successful."

Commissioner Annie Young had voted against hiring Gurban because she said the Board majority left other Commissioners out of the loop. She now says she has noticed a marked improvement in staff morale since he took over.