Parks update

Harriet concession set to undergo longer study

Feeling too rushed for time, two of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s commissioners have proposed the board step back and let citizens have a bigger voice in the future of the Lake Harriet concession.

In January, Park Board staff brought forward two leases: one that would bring Sea Salt Seafood Eatery to the concession and one that would have another vendor, Fun Time, pick up the tradition of selling popcorn and ice cream. Had the arrangement been approved, the Park Board would have set itself up to build a new structure, as the ice cream cooler and popcorn maker would take up more space than Sea Salt could handle.

Commissioners said they felt rushed. "It seems like it’s the cart before the horse," Annie Young told staff.

Residents were befuddled, too. Some asked whether the parks system really needs another seafood restaurant, Young said. (A Sea Salt eatery already stands at Minnehaha Park.)

Commissioner Tracy Nordstrom said she was taken aback by the "unexpected swelling" of concerns.

"I don’t want anybody to be pissed off about this at all," Nordstrom said.

To clean up the mess, she and Commissioner Bob Fine proposed the creation of a Citizen Advisory Committee. If approved by the full board, it would feature seven Park Board-appointed citizens, one from City Council Member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward), one from Mayor R.T. Rybak, one from the Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission, and two from surrounding neighborhoods.

As proposed, the committee would be responsible for recommending food choices, atmosphere, and a scope for the concession, as well as researching available revenue options. As for whether this means a new structure is out of the question, Nordstrom said there’s no ruling anything out.

"I don’t think we’re at that point yet," she said.

To prevent the committee from being under any strict time pressure, staff is negotiating a one-year lease with Fun Time to at least provide popcorn and ice cream this summer. (Without such an arrangement, there could be no offerings at the concession this year.)

"I think it’s safe to say there will not be expanded concessions for the 2009 season," Siggelkow said.

Special attention on the way for Lake Calhoun

Lake Calhoun is set to get a bit of extra citizen attention this spring.

Commissioner Tracy Nordstrom said she’s been in discussions with several of Calhoun’s neighbors to host two meetings to get up to speed on the lake’s needs and people’s wants. For residents new to the area since the mid-’90s, it will partially act as an information session on major planning sessions held more than a decade ago.

The meetings are partly born from the recent stewing over the maintenance-slash-overhaul of the lake’s south shore parking lot. That was a project Nordstrom said came from planning that was done long ago, lingered until funding was available, finally got set to be done this summer and then faced criticism over a lack of citizen input.

"If six months notification isn’t enough, how much lead time do you need when we’ve only just learned the funding is coming through?" Nordstrom said.

The meetings are expected to be held sometime in late March or early April. One will be on a weeknight and the other during the weekend, Nordstrom said.

Who’s running for reelection?

There’s a quick answer to which current Southwest representatives to the Park Board will be on the ballot this fall: everyone.

Mary Merrill Anderson, citywide: The board’s vice president, Merrill Anderson was first elected to the board in 2005. She has a long history with the parks system, previously serving as Park Board superintendent.

Bob Fine, District 6: If he wins reelection, it would be Fine’s third term representing Southwest. He also served one term as a citywide commissioner.

Tracy Nordstrom, District 4: After one term on the board, Nordstrom says she’s not ready to give up her seat. "I have come to really love the job," she said. "As all politicians say, there is still work to be done."

Tom Nordyke, citywide: The Cedar-Isles-Dean resident is seeking his second term on the board. He currently is serving his second year as the board’s president.

Annie Young, citywide: Young is seeking her sixth term on the board. A community organizer by profession, she has been a strong voice for all things green.

Lobbyist gets a lighter reception

A month after Commissioner Walt Dziedzic chastised one of the Park Board’s lobbyists, he apologized.

"I opened my mouth, and I will never do that again," the often outspoken Dziedzic said at the Feb. 4 legislative committee meeting.

In January, he called out lobbyist Maryann Campo for not providing weekly reports like the board’s other two lobbyists, who work for a different firm. Fellow commissioners responded that it’s not in Campo’s contract to do so, something Dziedzic said he would have tried to change had he seen more support on the board.

His tone was markedly different at the later meeting, joking about how much information Campo was listing off to the committee.

"When I critiqued our lobbyist for not reporting, I didn’t intend that she do it all in one night," he said to a roar of laughter.

Campo said she does a lot of work, even if she notifies the board differently.

"As you can gather by now, I’m in the halls [of the capitol] all the time," she said.

Parks update

Coming soon to Lake Harriet: Seafood and/or popcorn?

After what was a more-public-than-usual process to find a new vendor for the Lake Harriet Concession, commissioners appeared surprised when the outcome meant not simply moving in a new tenant — it meant building a new structure.

At a Jan. 21 committee meeting, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board staff brought forward a lease with Sea Salt Seafood Eatery, the same company that operates a seafood restaurant at Minnehaha Park, to bring its product to Lake Harriet. Commissioners appeared pleased. But staff also proposed a lease with another company to continue providing popcorn and ice cream — Lake Harriet staples, Commissioner Bob Fine said.

There’s just one hitch: For the two vendors to work at the same site, a small but new building has to be put up, staff said. The size of the popcorn machine and the freezers make it impossible to keep them in the same space as the seafood eatery.

Park Board commissioners were caught off-guard. Fine said he didn’t know until the meeting that there would be two companies involved in the proposal. He also didn’t know the board was expected to put up a new structure that doesn’t even have a cost estimate attached to it yet.

"It seems like it’s the cart before the horse here," a visibly concerned Commissioner Annie Young said. She was bothered that the board could bind itself into building something by approving a lease despite knowing few details. "I don’t know how we’re going to build a building. I keep being told that we don’t have any money."

In preliminary plans, the new structure would be a round, beige building that would be about 22 feet in diameter. Fine said it would be located between the Lake Harriet Band Shell and where boats are loaded.

There is no strict timeline, but without action, Lake Harriet could end up ice cream and popcorn-free this summer. At the same time, Fine said, the public needs to be allowed time to have a say.

Community concerns won’t stop rebuild of Calhoun lot

A makeover of the south-shore parking lot on Lake Calhoun is scheduled to begin this summer, despite community concerns that the project was moved ahead with little input.   

The deteriorating lot has been in need of repair for years, park staff said. Plans call for a smaller, reconfigured lot situated farther east, realignment and improved separation of the bike and pedestrian trails, an entry plaza with a lake and skyline overlook, rain gardens and a variety of new plantings.

Because it was categorized as a maintenance project, park staff was not required to seek public input or Park Board approval. That left some community members feeling blindsided by what they argue is more than repair.  

"This isn’t a maintenance issue. It really isn’t," said Marissa Lasky, a member of the Calhoun Windsurfing Association. "This isn’t a repaving."

Lasky said the project as planned would affect windsurfers’ ability to setup and launch from the south shore. Finding a spot with enough room, the right wind and a walkable lakebed can be difficult, she said.

Project Manager Andrea Weber said the windsurfing group has been heard and some minor modifications were made to the plans to better accommodate the sport.

However, "it’s being designed for the general public." Weber said. "It’s not being designed for a specific group."

Lasky said she’s concerned for more than windsurfers. Anyone who uses the parks and lakes should have been able to get involved in the lot’s development, she said.

"We want to see public input always being at the forefront of things happening on Lake Calhoun or Lake Harriet or other lakes," she said.  

Lasky said a member of her group wrote a letter to park staff about the concerns. She planned to do so as well. But Weber said the project would move forward as planned.

The Metropolitan Council is funding the rebuild.

Committee votes to allow catering lease change

Twin City Catering is gone.

The largely picnic-oriented business that operated from the first floor of the Park Board’s headquarters saw its lease terminated by a committee on Jan. 21, with a full board vote expected on Feb. 4.

The company’s faltering meeting room space is expected to go back to being the Park Board’s — those 7,200 square feet will no longer be used for events.

But there still will be a catering business at 2117 West River Road. It’ll just have a different, albeit familiar, name: In December, Twin City Catering merged with Mintahoe Catering Group, perhaps best known in Park Board circles as the exclusive caterer at the Nicollet Island Pavilion.

Both Twin City and Mintahoe made the news last year for experiencing small controversies.

Mintahoe got into hot water after it was discovered violating its lease by moving its headquarters into the pavilion. Twin City, meanwhile, was found never to have been assessed personal property taxes — an accusation from a Park Board watchdog group that ended up revealing that many private businesses on public land, including all of those on parkland, never had been assessed those distinctive taxes.

(Twin City has since been assessed and has paid off all of its taxes. Mintahoe as of late January still owed the entirety of its $67,188.65 bill, plus $10,074.68 in penalties.)

Those issues reared their heads when commissioners were asked to approve a lease naming Mintahoe as the new West River Road tenant. President Tom Nordyke repeatedly asked staff to make sure the Park Board wasn’t helping organizations avoid paying their taxes, despite General Manager Don Siggelkow’s assurance that that wasn’t the case.

"It’s not our issue," Siggelkow said. "It’s personal."

But Nordyke and other commissioners said a new lease with Mintahoe needed to include some sort of assurance. Commissioner Bob Fine proposed a clause holding the company accountable for paying its taxes.

"It’s not our responsibility," Vice President Mary Merrill Anderson said. "But we don’t want to be fostering a non-payment.

"As a public entity, we rely on taxes. So we want to make sure we support everyone paying their taxes."