Park Board accepts but struggles over $90,000 donation

In many cases, an unsolicited $90,000 dona¬tion would be welcomed with open arms. But such an offer from hardware store chain Lowe’s put at least one member of the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board in a tangle.

The issue? Because the Park Board is accepting the money, it also will have to allow signs and banners proclaiming Lowe’s presence.

The donation originated with the chain, which is planning on spending an average of $15,000 each on six Minneapolis parks of its choosing. They include Parade, Harrison and Loring parks.

The Park Board, which will choose what the money is spent on, has decided to focus primarily on fixing up kitchens at those parks’ buildings. For Loring Park, they’ve asked to add a shed, and for Parade Park, they’ve requested safety lighting for the parking lot and a refurbished toilet building.

While most commissioners said the money would be welcomed by the cash-strapped board, they all struggled with whether they would be opening up a can of worms because of the required signage. Commissioner Annie Young was especially worried.

“I still believe it’s a slippery slope,” Young said at the board’s June 4 meeting. Two weeks earlier, she had been the only Administration and Finance Committee member to abstain from voting to move the Lowe’s proposal to the full board.

At that meeting, other commissioners voiced their concerns, particularly Committee Chairman Scott Vreeland.

“We want to be careful,” he said. “We have all sorts of folks who want to do things for us with very little in advertising.”

Furthermore, donations aren’t what keep the parks afloat.

“If I walk into [a park] and it says, ‘This area brought to you by Lowe’s,’ that bugs me,” Vreeland said, “because this area is brought to us by taxpayers.”

The donation proposal, presented to commissioners in May, asked for 11-inch by 17-inch indoor signs and 8-foot by 2-foot banners outside. But because of their concerns, the Park Board went back to Lowe’s and has asked to take the size of the banners down to 6 feet by 2 feet. Grants coordinator Michelle Kellogg also said they’ve requested the banners be hung in locations where they wouldn’t be easily seen from homes.

That wasn’t enough of a change for Young.

“Two by six is still a big banner,” she said.

To other commissioners, the projects made possible by the donation warranted the board to accept it. Commissioner Jon Olson emphasized that the indoor signs will not be very large and that, as part of the agreement with Lowe’s, the outdoor banners will stay only through the end of December or until they are damaged.

“A lot of the rec centers can use these new things,” Olson said.

The board ultimately voted 8-1 to accept the donation; Young was the only commissioner to vote against it.

Vice President Mary Merrill Anderson said the issue made it clear the board needed to adopt a clear policy on how to deal with future corporate donations. She said the Standards and Conduct Committee, which she is the chairwoman of, would take on the subject.

“It can be a slippery slope,” she said, “until we set some
guidelines.”

Those couldn’t come soon enough, General Manager Don Siggelkow said, because the board likely will face more of these issues as government funding sources continue to shrink. He said it would be wrong of the board to shut out corporate sponsorships.

“No one likes the Lowe’s sign, but you don’t get the money without the sign,” Siggelkow said.

Some constituents are having a tough time swallowing that argument. In the past, the board has faced clear opposition when dealing with corporate partnerships. For example, when it tried in 2002 to contract with Dairy Queen to operate concession stands at Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun, it had to back off after hitting strong public opposition.

And the board already has faced some pushback from the public on the Lowe’s issue. Dan Woychick, of the Lakes District Council, sent an e-mail to several Park Board members after learning of the proposal.

“While I understand the need for the [Park Board] to generate new sources of revenue,” Woychick wrote, “ask Lowe’s to make a donation to the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, or negotiate for a plaque inside the park building — something a little more philanthropic and a lot less commercial.”

There are no Lowe’s stores in Minneapolis; the closest are in Plymouth and West St. Paul.