Parks update // Gurban out June 30

Gurban out after June 30, former superintendent in

Jon Gurban will not serve as the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s superintendent beyond June 30. The controversial head of the parks system sent a letter to the board on March 12 saying he does not want an extension of his contract.

“I’ve had a great run!” Gurban wrote, but it’s a run he’s willing to see come to an end. He was first hired in 2004.

The Park Board voted earlier this year to begin a search for a new superintendent, saying it was time to move on. Because that process is expected to last beyond Gurban’s contractual end date — the board is targeting completion by October — commissioners had discussed keeping him on on an interim basis.

The board instead was expected to offer a popular former superintendent the four-month contract.

David Fisher led the parks system for almost two decades, from 1980–1998. His tenure included overseeing the redevelopment of the Mississippi riverfront and the creation of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Perhaps most key, however, is that he also led the Park Board when it last hosted the National Recreation and Park Association’s annual conference, which it is doing again this year.

President John Erwin said it would be beneficial to have Fisher’s knowledge when organizing that major national event. Fisher also could play a positive role in recruiting the system’s next superintendent, he said.

“David Fisher allows us to provide proven leadership from the past,” Erwin wrote in a letter to the board. “Approving [his hiring] would allow us to turn the page and focus on the search at hand.”

Commissioners were expected to take up Fisher’s contract at their March 17 meeting. If approved, Fisher would serve as interim superintendent from July 1 through Oct. 31. He would be paid $50,000 plus “reasonable travel expenses.”

Commissioners also were expected to consider a contract with Gurban that would have him stay with the Park Board as a consultant for the next superintendent. The one-year contract would pay him about $20,000 in cash and benefits.

Southwest Commissioner Anita Tabb, who has been vocal about not keeping Gurban as superintendent, said that although she has never met Fisher, the interim hiring should work for the best.

“I’ve heard glowing reviews,” Tabb said.

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Board weighs whether to request tax exemptions

A committee of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has put on track an effort to exempt many parks-based private operations from having to pay personal property taxes.

It was the Park Board’s first official step on the issue since property tax bills unexpectedly arrived at concessionaires such as Lake Calhoun’s Tin Fish more than two years ago. The issue has been an uneasy one for both the affected private operators and board staff and officials, largely because of an ambiguity floating over the assessments.

Many for-profit businesses operating in non-profit locations have never been assessed personal property taxes. Examples include 20.21, the Walker Art Center-based restaurant, and until at least 2008, Minneapolis Convention Center-based Kelber Catering.

But according to a state law that has left some in the Twin Cities scratching their heads, many such businesses should be on the hook. Minnesota statute 272.01 states that when non-profit space is used for for-profit purposes, the for-profit operators become responsible for personal property taxes.

The only reasons such businesses wouldn’t be assessed are if assessors don’t know they exist or if an exemption is created in state law. The latter is what happened for Kelber Catering: In 2009, the city successfully lobbied the Legislature to keep Kelber from having to pay those taxes.

That move inspired Park Board staff to propose the same for their operators. Furthermore, according to the board’s legal counsel, statute 272.01 doesn’t apply to them. Karin Peterson of Rice, Michels & Walther in a memo said there’s an exemption for operations in or relative to the use of a public park.

“Running [the] concessions at a profit by a professional should not change the function that the refectories themselves serve in relation to the park,” Peterson said.

Yet there remained some discomfort among the elected board. Commissioner Liz Wielinski said she was still bothered by the ambiguity of the law, an issue she said would be best worked out by concessionaires challenging it in court, not by getting an exemption.

Athena Priest, co-owner and operator of Tin Fish, said that’s what she’s been doing. But the downside is that her challenge has been a years-long process, during which time she has still had to pay her taxes, as well as legal fees.

“We are small businesses,” she said about parks concessionaires. “We have a small voice.”

The full board was expected to take up the issue at its March 17 meeting, after this edition of the Southwest Journal went to press. General Manager Don Siggelkow was urging some haste, as several businesses are suffering because of the taxes, he said.

Twin City Catering, which used to operate convention space on the first floor of the board’s headquarters, renegotiated its contract and jettisoned the room after being assessed for $39,800 in 2008.