Parks update

City, Park Board clashover Wi-Fi installations

At their last meeting of 2008, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board came within a roll call of preventing Minneapolis’ wireless Internet project from going citywide. While they ultimately didn’t do so that night, commissioners still could stop it.

More than 2,000 wireless nodes have been popping up around the city over the past two years, ever since the City Council approved an agreement with U.S. Wireless to bring affordable wireless Internet to Minneapolis. Installation started in Downtown and has been slowly expanding to other parts of the city. The ultimate goal is to blanket Minneapolis entirely with wireless service.

While partly to expand affordable Internet options, the project’s goal also is to eventually use Wi-Fi for emergency services. Police and fire departments, for example, would use it for dispatch purposes.

The project appeared to be sailing smoothly until October, when Park Board staff noticed several nodes had been installed around Lake of the Isles. Parkland is not the city’s, and the Park Board would have had to give approval for the installations. According to meeting documents, the city never approached the board.

After the discovery, the board asked the city to remove the nodes; the city said there were no alternatives that would prevent a hole in the wireless network. The board threatened legal action; the city sent a representative, Chief Information Officer Lynn Willenbring, to the board’s Dec. 17 meeting for a presentation and an attempt to talk the parks system into entering into its own contract with U.S. Wireless.

The response was far from warm.

Commissioners expressed concerns about the size of the nodes, the number that would have to be installed — more than 40 on parkland — the negative impact they would have on aesthetics, and the potential of affecting the Grand Rounds’ historical status as a scenic byway. Commissioner Scott Vreeland questioned how good service would be when surrounding trees are filled with leaves.

"I don’t appreciate … this 11th-hour ‘Oh, please please please,’" Commissioner Tracy Nordstrom said. "This is not good government."

Willenbring, in response, apologized for the city never having contacted the parks. But she also said it would be a problem if the wireless network is limited. Emergency services, in particular, will need the network, she said.

Only one commissioner, Walt Dziedzic, showed support for the project, mostly in hopes that the Park Board could get some leverage with the city on future projects. Commissioner Bob Fine, on the other hand, proposed the Park Board ban the nodes from parkland.

"I don’t find it acceptable," Fine said. "… It may be nice to get wireless, but there has to be some sort of alternative."

The board ultimately voted to table the issue and discuss it further at a later date. In the meantime, the already installed nodes will stay standing.

Stop-gap budget gets unanimous approval

The Park Board unanimously approved its 2009 budget at a special Dec. 11 meeting.

The budget is largely seen as a stop gap, one that focuses on keeping down spending while raising as few fees as possible. More than a dozen unfilled staff positions will stay that way until at least halfway through 2009 — longer if predictions about the state slashing Local Government Aid funding hold true.

General Manager Don Siggelkow said this isn’t a way to improve parks service, but at least it keeps the parks prepared for another year in a sour economy.

"It’s been pretty apparent [the state’s budget deficit] was coming," Siggelkow said. "We didn’t play games. We’ve tried to prepare."

Board grants one-year beverage contract extension

The board unanimously approved a one-year extension to its five-year-old contract with Coca Cola to provide pop in the parks.

General Manager Don Siggelkow said he’d originally planned on holding a bidding process to vet other possible vendors for a new five-year contract, but several commissioners said they wanted to have a longer discussion about pop’s presence in the system. Despite personal reservations about the usefulness of such a discussion, Siggelkow said he created the one-year extension to give the commissioners time.

Before the vote, Commissioner Annie Young reiterated her support of tackling the issue.

"It’s something we’re going to have to discuss," she has said.

Commissioners: Superintendent a strong leader for staff

Most of the Park Board’s commissioners feel the head of the park system’s staff, Superintendent Jon Gurban, has strong leadership skills and shows a lot of passion for the parks system. But they also feel a need to improve staff’s communications with the board.

Those were some of the highlights from a recently completed evaluation of Gurban’s duties. Released on Dec. 3, comments remained anonymous. But three commissioners are listed as saying board relations to staff are below expectations, and one commissioner said the superintendent’s overall performance needs improvement.

At the same time, Gurban received high marks for developing and following the Park Board’s Comprehensive Plan, for creating dynamic parks and keeping the parks safe. One commissioner said his performance is consistently superior.

Parks update

Lake Calhoun south shore project in the works

It was a discovery that compelled Park Watch, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board watchdog group, to proclaim "EXPOSED!" on its website. Park Board staff members, they said, had been caught in the act.

Those staffers’ response? No worries.

"We continue to think, and that gets us in trouble every now and then," said Judd Rietkerk, the Park Board’s planning director.

The location of Park Watch’s latest concerns is the south end of Lake Calhoun, a strip of land that made news three years ago when the Lake Calhoun Yacht Club and Sailing School proposed a $1.5 million, five-building development. That never came to pass, and discussions about what to do with the land — currently in grubby condition — went silent.

That’s why, after numerous open records requests to the park system, Park Watch was surprised to find documents hinting a $350,000 project could soon come to pass. Planning, it appeared, was under way for a so-called Lake Calhoun South Shore Parking and Plaza project that had been neither seen nor heard by the elected Park Board commissioners.

Furthermore, the $350,000 referred only to the cost of a first phase.

"Doesn’t that imply a phase two, three, etc.?" Lowry Hill resident Anita Hill said during open time at the Nov. 19 Park Board meeting. "What might be the cost of those phases?"

Rietkerk, in a later interview, had a simple answer. Those costs aren’t known, but they don’t yet matter, either. He said staff envisions the land as perhaps ultimately becoming a plaza with flowers, gardens and a bathroom site.

But staff’s No. 1 goal for the land is to improve the parking lot — pave it, fill in potholes. That’s phase one, and that’s what the Park Board can pay for right now, he said, with maintenance money from a regional parks fund. If anything else were to be done to the land afterward, he said, those would be filed under phase two, three, etc. labels.

When the board does get its say, the project could be viewed as no big deal. Commissioner Bob Fine said he views the lot overhaul as necessary work to remove an eyesore. It’s nowhere near as big a project as, say, a yacht club complex that would need a lot of neighborhood input, he said.

"It’s a maintenance issue,"
Fine said.

Park Board seeks storm water recognition, money

A Park Board committee moved ahead with a proposal to ask the City Council to consider making the board a full partner in storm water management.

The board already considers itself a prominent figure in Minneapolis’ storm water system. For one, Minneapolis’ lakes are all the Park Board’s. And, according to a staff report, the parks system performs most of the city’s storm water monitoring, lake monitoring and water resource education in Minneapolis. Yet the city’s storm water ordinance, adopted in 2005, does not name the Park Board as a partner.

Tim Brown, the board’s environmental operations manager, said the result is that the parks are paying for services they provide.

If action is approved by the full board — a vote expected on Dec. 17 — the Park Board would ask the City Council to change the storm water ordinance to make the public bodies more equal. Under the proposal, the board would be advised on — just as the city is now — and get a say in storm water utility decision-making. The board is seeking financial recognition, too, and would ask the city to allocate no less than 10 percent of its annual storm water operating budget for the parks system.

"It’ll be a challenge to get dollars out of the city, but I’m all for it," Commissioner Scott Vreeland said. "… We really share the water system."

Park Board taking applications for Community Engagement representative

The Park Board is taking The Park Board is taking applications for a seat on the Neighborhood and Community Engagement Commission.

Approved by the City Council in September, the 16-member board is the culmination of a months-long process to make the Neighborhood and Revitalization Program (NRP) viable for the foreseeable future. The Council gets to appoint five board members, the mayor two. The remaining eight seats are expected to be filled by the city’s neighborhood groups through an as-yet-undetermined process.

One of the commission’s first tasks will be to identify candidates for the director of the newly formed Neighborhood and Community Engagement Department. City Coordinator Steven Bosacker will make the final hire.

Applicants can be neither current elected officials nor Park Board employees. They also must be Minneapolis residents. Applications can be found at www.minneapolisparks.org, at any of the Park Board’s recreation centers or by calling 230-6400.

The deadline for applications is Dec. 19. The Park Board will make the appointment on Jan. 2.

Parks update

Pop machines in parks: Do they belong?

With the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s beverage contract nearing the end of its fifth and final year, General Manager Don Siggelkow hoped in October to give commissioners a brief update on the process of getting a new contract. What he got instead was a flurry of a discussion that lasted maybe five minutes but revealed a lot of interest and heat.

Commissioner Annie Young wants pop out of the parks. She sees the combination of caffeine and heavy amounts of sugar as dangerous. While she admits to having some bad health habits herself, drinking pop isn’t one of them.

Commissioner Jon Olson, the owner of several Dairy Queen locations, sells pop for a living.

Commissioner Scott Vreeland said he’s drunk maybe three pops in 20 years. He prefers juice, and for the moments he craves less sugar, he drinks water. But no pop.

The discussion blindsided Siggelkow, who heard nothing like this the last time the Park Board approved a beverage contract.

"This wasn’t an issue then," he said.

At that time, though, there were fewer studies to suggest pop — especially diet pop — had negative impacts on people’s bodies. Childhood obesity was less of an issue then, too. But these days, studies are more regular and findings more shocking. A recent study showed the arteries of some obese children looking similar to those of 45-year-olds.

One of the Park Board’s main missions, laid out in its comprehensive plan, is to promote healthy lifestyles. It’s for that reason that Young wants to have some sort of community dialogue. When the park system is writing grants to boost healthiness, should it also be selling pop at the same time?

"I think it’s something we’re going to have to discuss," she said.

Not that anyone’s expecting a satisfying outcome.

"It’s kind of a cultural question. I don’t know if there’s a black-or-white answer," Commissioner Scott Vreeland said.

But he said he still wants to ask, even if merely for the sake of asking.

"We’d like to have [a policy] that the community can like or understand,"
Vreeland said.

To avoid coinciding a potentially anti-pop discussion with another five-year beverage contract, Siggelkow decided to extend the park system’s current contract, with Coca Cola, for a year. He warned commissioners, though, about getting too deep into a discussion that he said is unlikely to bear any fruit.

"It’s a service," Siggelkow said. "I don’t think you’re going to change behavior one way or the other. … It’s kind of the same issue as with Halloween candy."

Take it away, and all the fun might go with it.

Emerald ash borer spotted in Wisconsin

The emerald ash borer is creeping closer.

The exotic beetle that has killed ash trees of all types, sizes and ages in states such as Michigan, Ohio and Maryland recently was discovered in Wisconsin — the closest location so far to Minnesota.

There is no known way to eradicate the emerald ash borer, whose larvae disrupt ash trees’ ability to transport water and nutrients. When the beetle is spotted, arborists say the only thing that can be done is watch ash trees die.

There are about 210,000 ash trees in Minneapolis.

Because arborists consider the spread of the beetle slow but inevitable, the only thing Minnesotans can do is make the process take longer. If you believe you’ve seen the ash borer in Minnesota, call the state Department of Agriculture’s "Arrest the Pest" hotline, 651-201-6684, or e-mail Arrest.The.Pest@state.mn.us.

Minnehaha Falls restoration project underway

The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District and the Park Board broke ground Nov. 21 on the $5.8 million restoration and improvement of the Minnehaha Falls and Glen area in Minnehaha Park.

The work, done in collaboration with the state of Minnesota, the Minnesota Veterans Home and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, focuses on fixing up deteriorating 1930s-era structures surrounding Minnehaha Creek, preventing future erosion and constructing new trails. A new rain garden will absorb stormwater runoff.

"There will be greater protection of all natural resources on the site, including a revitalized trail system along Minnehaha Creek below the falls, an elevated boardwalk and stabilized stairways," Commissioner Carol Kummer said in a news release.

During construction, the area will largely be restricted to visitors. The bulk of work should be completed by spring. Vegetation work at the site is expected to continue through next summer.

For more information about the project, go to www.minnehahacreek.org/MinnehahaFallsandGlenRestoration.php.