Parks update // Erwin president, Young vice president

Board votes Erwin to presidency; Young elected vice president

The new Minneapolis Park and Recreation board has been sworn in, and its leaders are two familiar faces: Longtime Commissioner Annie Young is the new board’s vice president, and returning Commissioner John Erwin is its president.

At a brief meeting Jan. 4, the Park Board also finalized which commissioners will serve on what committees. Chairpersons, as appointed by Erwin, are returning commissioners Scott Vreeland (Administration and Finance Committee), Jon Olson (Operations and Environment), Carol Kummer (Legislation and Intergovernmental) and Young (Planning), along with new commissioners Liz Wielinski (Recreation) and Brad Bourn (Standards and Conduct).

The board’s first full meeting was scheduled for Jan. 6, after this edition of the Southwest Journal went to press. But to get a sense of everyone’s priorities, most of the group — sans returning Commissioner Bob Fine — met briefly in December for an informal session. Each commissioner was asked to bring forward three ideas for what they’d like to accomplish in the short term. Here’s an overview of their responses:

— Erwin listed stabilizing the Park Board’s tax levy in relation to the city’s, asserting the Park Board’s independence and increasing grant-writing for the system.

— Young said she wanted to tackle whether to open the search for a new superintendent, look at changing the process for setting the parks’ tax levy and focus on preparations for the National Recreation and Park Association Congress and Exposition, which Minneapolis is hosting in October.

— Wielinski was more specific, listing lowering water park costs, getting air conditioning in Luxton Park and moving ahead with the Father Hennepin Bluffs citizens’ advisory committee.

— Olson said he wanted to boost youth programs and look at getting the Park Board off the grid.

— Vreeland focused on developing an ordinance to make clearer the use and goals of citizens’ advisory committees, forging ahead with the parks’ sustainability plan and continuing to implement the system’s comprehensive plan.

— New Commissioner Anita Tabb wanted to increase outreach, work on the relationship between the City Council and the Park Board and take another look at the parks’ budget and priorities.

— Kummer said she wanted to deal with the tangles of the city’s storm water ordinance, continue work on the Lower Glen and enhance the Park Board’s enterprise operations.

— Bourn said his priorities were stabilizing the council-Park Board relationship, formalizing the way the parks system receives donations and improving the use of citizens’ advisory committees.

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Lumberyard site eyed as possible new park

What currently is a largely industrial lumberyard could someday be a park. That’s the hope, anyway, at the Park Board, where in their last meeting of 2009, commissioners voted to begin the process of purchasing the almost 14-acre 9th Avenue Northeast site of Scherer Bros. Lumber Co., located just north of Boom Island.

The draw for the Park Board: The property borders the Mississippi River.

Possible negatives: Chemical contamination and economic pressures.

The purchase would fit in with several adopted Park Board plans, Planning Director Judd Rietkerk said. There’s the city-, Metropolitan Council- and Park Board-approved Above the Falls Master Plan — which calls for redevelopment along the river — and there’s the parks’ own comprehensive plan, which lays out an increased focus on the north and northeast parts of the city. It also matches goals of the recently formed Minneapolis Riverfront Corp., a non-profit that tracks and promotes targets for and along the Mississippi.

There are no exact plans for what the Park Board would do with the land, but staff suggestions include developing trails and open space.

Up front, the Park Board is making a $400,000 earnest money down payment on the property, an amount that will be covered by money the parks received from the Minnesota Department of Transportation after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. The board has until the end of March to gather further information and develop a final arrangement for the site, and if commissioners were to decide buying the property isn’t a good idea, they would be able to get the $400,000 back.

Only Commissioner Annie Young didn’t vote to approve the arrangement. She said she was troubled by a report she’d received — reportedly from watchdog group Park Watch — that traces of chemicals, possibly including the cancer-linked vermiculite, had been found at the site.

Rietkerk disputed those results, but Young decided to abstain from the vote.

Newly sworn-in President John Erwin, who watched the Dec. 16 vote as a commissioner-elect, afterward said the conflicting vermiculite reports are an issue that will need to be tackled going forward.

“My first thought was, ‘Let’s get in there and do some independent testing,’” Erwin said.

He also said he had some concerns about the lack of a known price tag for the property — Rietkerk said it was still being appraised at the time of the meeting — but that the purchase could be intriguing.

“A potential park on the river that size I think is exciting,” Erwin said.