The watchdogs of the parks

Profiles of the citizens groups that monitor the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board

Minneapolis is a city whose citizens care greatly about its parks.

That passion is what drives a handful of volunteer groups involved in trying to improve the parks, from green thumbs to muckrakers.

Here, the Southwest Journal profiles three of those organizations: Friends of Loring Park, Park Watch and People for Parks.

Friends of Loring Park

Today, Loring Park is often called a jewel of the Minneapolis park system. But rewind a decade or two and it was a gem badly in need of polishing.

The 35-acre Downtown park was dogged back then by a reputation for drugs and prostitution and wasn’t a place where people always felt safe. Some neighbors saw its potential, though.

Dottie Speidel said she was amazed the first time she walked into the park. It was 1979, and she and her husband had just moved to the neighborhood from a place where the nearest park was nothing but a flat rectangle.

“I thought, what a wonderful place this is, and what an amazing cross-center of the urban space,” said Speidel, who has since become known to some as the grandmother of Loring Park.

A group of concerned citizens, including Speidel, formed a committee within the Loring Park neighborhood Association to work on park issues. When the Park Board put together a new master plan for Loring Park in the early 1990s, the committee served as an advisory group.

Citizens for a Loring Park Community included $1.3 million for park projects in its first phase of Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) spending. The money paid for restoring the pond, relocating the horseshoe pits and creating gardens.

With the NRP funding used up but plenty remaining on the committee’s to-do list, its members spun off from the neighborhood group in 1997 and formed Friends of Loring Park.

“We had no money, but we had a desire to continue to make improvements in the park,” Speidel said.

The founders registered as an independent nonprofit and with little more than an answering machine and a post office box picked up where they left off with the neighborhood group.

Since then, they’ve planted more than 200 trees in the park and paid to treat others against Dutch elm disease. The group has installed more than 80 cast-iron benches in the park and placed hundreds of personalized pavers in pathways. And its volunteer gardeners have spent countless hours tending to the park’s centerpiece gardens.

The Foundation for Minneapolis Parks honored Friends of Loring Park this spring with the Charles M. Loring Award for exceptional contributions to the park system.

“They’ve been tremendously generous with their financial support, but more importantly their presence down there,” Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) Superintendent Jon Gurban said. “Their direct involvement in cleaning up and beautifying the park allowed it to make a dramatic change.”

Park Watch

Are they watchdogs, or just constantly barking?

For more than three years now, Park Watch has kept a critical eye on the MPRB.

Its members say they’ve improved civic discourse by drawing attention to votes that otherwise might have passed with little public comment.

Critics accuse them of spreading disinformation and intimidating park staff from presenting new ideas.

Its most recent clash came during last month’s board meetings. Park Watch founder Arlene Fried was cut off during a May 2 public comment session while criticizing the leadership of Superintendent Gurban.

Park Board President Jon Olson accused Fried of making improper accusations, but a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union’s Minnesota chapter later said her speech should not have been censored.

Fried was allowed to finish her remarks at the following meeting on May 16, but only after the board had already voted to extend Gurban’s contract.

“I don’t want to live in a city with a unit of government that’s operating like this,” Fried said in an interview, during which she also compared the Park Board’s practices to those of a totalitarian government.

It was the process by which Gurban was originally hired by the Park Board three years ago that caused Park Watch to unite, Fried said. Gurban had neither applied for nor interviewed for the job when several candidates dropped out and the board voted to hire him.

Fried said to hire Gurban without any public scrutiny was a blatant disregard for democratic process. She and four others set to do whatever they could to make future park decisions more transparent.

At least two Park Watch members have attended every Park Board meeting since January 2004, Fried said. They take notes and then disseminate selected information and analysis via the group’s blog, letters to the editor or the Minneapolis Issues List e-mail forum.

“I see our role as just providing information so neighborhoods and organizations being affected (by Park Board decisions) have more information,” said Liz Wielinski, who takes a calmer approach than Fried in park discussions.

While some dispute the accuracy of their information, there’s little question that the group of gadflies has riled public awareness on a handful of projects, including Crown Hydro’s hydroelectric power plant, the Calhoun Sailing Village and the Parade Stadium.

“Virtually any idea that we have, the minute it gets out of our mouth, is trampled by Park Watch,” Gurban said. “I have very little respect for that group of people.”

Park Commissioner Walt Dziedzic said if Park Watch has any legacy so far, it’s that they’ve stifled park staff from coming forward with creative ideas because of fear for being publicly mocked.

“They’re wrong more than they are right,” Dziedzic said.

At the same time, he said he’ll defend they’re right to speak up.

“Sometimes they overstep their bounds,” Dziedzic said. “But this is a free country, and they do keep you on your toes.”

People for Parks

People for Parks might be the oldest of Minneapolis’ park-focused citizen groups, although it recently reinvented itself with a new board and new, expanded mission.

The organization formed in 1978 after the city’s outbreak of Dutch elm disease. The nonprofit let individuals and corporations give money for replacement trees in parks.

Jeff Winter, president of People for Parks, said the group’s profile rose and fell with Dutch elm disease. As the disease became less common, the group lost focus and, for a while, fell out of favor with the Park Board.

“The prior leadership didn’t seem to be responsive to Park Board staff and also seemed to be floundering with some of their administrative and accounting details,” Gurban said.

“That provided some frustration for us.”

The organization’s entire board of directors resigned in early 2005, and a group of Southwest residents, including Winter, volunteered for the seats.

Since then, People for Parks has repaired its relationship with the Park Board and refocused itself with a fundraising arm for various park projects the nonprofit prioritizes. Among its major gifts so far: a $9,675 check for planting and maintenance of 43 trees along Victory Memorial Drive, and a $60,000 donation for construction of a picnic shelter at Lake Harriet.

Whereas the Foundation for Minneapolis Parks targets larger corporate and legacy gifts, People for Parks considers itself a vehicle for smaller, individual donations. Donors can give through the group’s website. It also targets park users with direct mailings. Administration costs total less than 2 percent, it says.

“We see our mission as taking care of the whole city’s parks in whatever way we can, and being a conduit between park users and the parks,” said Felicity Britton, a People for Parks board member.

Board members regularly survey park departments to get a sense for their current needs. Ultimately, the People for Parks’ board decides how to spend donations. Since its leadership change, they’ve generally been on the same page as park officials, but its rules don’t require them to be lockstep with them, Winter said.

Pointing to a chart they prepared, Winter and Britton noted that a Minneapolis taxpayer living on a property valued at $178,200 paid $200 for parks last year. That’s not enough to pay for a world-class system, they said, and their mission is to help fill that gap.

And to support their argument, they shared a 1945 quote from the architect of the city’s park system, Theodore Wirth:

“Operation, upkeep and maintenance funds obtained through general taxation are insufficient and can never be sufficient to meet in full the public demands for park and recreation service.”

Contributing writer Dan Haugen edits the blog, the Northeast Beat (www.northeastbeat.com).