Dog park debated

A previously uncontested proposal to add an off-leash area for dogs at Martin Luther King Park has grown controversial

KINGFIELD — In stark contrast to a community meeting in April filled with supporters of an off-leash area for dogs at Martin Luther King Park, an open house on the issue in late July drew plenty of opposition.

At odds were area dog lovers advocating for a neighborhood spot to let their pets mingle and run free and park users who felt the site should be left alone as a memorial to its namesake, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I think it’s a slap in the face of the black community,” said Lilene Moore, who attended the July meeting as a representative of the National Association of Black Social Workers’ Minnesota chapter. “At a time where we need to protect his image and what he stood for, I think the whole doggie thing would take precedence over him, his name, his meaning and what he stood for.”

A group called the Kingfield Dog Park Task Force has been gathering support and working on plans for an off-leash area in the neighborhood for more than a year, motivated by a high dog population and no dog park in Park District 6, which encompasses the bulk of the region south of Lake Street.

The district has 1,464 licensed dogs this year, according to the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. That’s second only to District 5 in southeast Minneapolis, which has 1,649 registered pooches. But District 6 is the only district in the city without a dog park.

The task force’s initial proposal was for a dog area that stretched along King Park’s western sound wall, with a small-dog zone behind the tennis bubble. They said a dog park in that area would make use of largely unused land, bring more positive activity to the park, reduce crime and provide an area for dogs and their owners to exercise and socialize.

Staff from the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board later suggested using a corner of the park at 40th Street and Nicollet Avenue. Both options were displayed at the July open house, though the Park Board’s maps differed slightly from the task force’s proposal.

Open-house attendees could review the displays, fill out a survey and place a sticker on an informal poll about whether they supported an off-leash area at King Park. At the end of the night, the poll showed 47 people in favor of a dog park, 30 against and four maybes.

A family park

Nearly all of the “no” votes on the poll came from the black community.

Longtime Kingfield resident Willie Mae Demmings, 78, was among them. She said she moved across the street from King Park in 1969, shortly after its name was changed from Nicollet Field to honor the slain civil rights leader. She raised 11 children in the neighborhood and said they essentially lived at the park from sunup to sundown.

Demmings, also a representative of the Minneapolis AARP chapter, said the site is still a family park and a place that celebrates cultural and ethnic diversity. She thought a dog park could take away from that by replacing space already used for other activities.

“We just don’t feel that we want a doggie park here,” she said. “Because we don’t have the space for it and we don’t think we need to be exposed to it.”

As the former owner of two German shepherds, Demmings said she has nothing against dogs.  

“I took care of them at my house and that’s another reason I can’t figure out why doggie parks are so important,” she said. “Because back in the day people had dogs and they took care of them at home.”

Venetta Khan, a King Park user for 45 years, who is also black, agreed with Demmings’ concerns about an off-leash area interfering with other park activities. She was also worried about the smells and uncleanliness a dog park could create.

Moore said such distractions would further erode the visibility of Dr. King at the park.

“Not that we’re opposed to animals or dogs,” Moore said. “We’re not opposed to that, but I just think it takes the focus off the humanitarianism and the focus all of the sudden is on dog doodoo.”

Getting the word out

Many of the people who attended the July open house said they were just recently made aware of the dog park proposal.

Representatives from the Dog Park Task Force said they’re working to step up their outreach efforts to be as inclusive as possible. Park Board Commissioner Brad Bourn (6th District), who has led the organization of meetings on the dog park issue, said inclusion is also one of his goals. He said he was disappointed to see some communities absent at the open house.

“It’s a culturally charged issue for different reasons,” Bourn said. “Two other big stakeholders in our park are Latino and Somali communities and there wasn’t a big turnout there, so we’ll look at some informal outreach and formal outreach to make sure that their voices are heard.”

Some open house attendees came prepared to speak publicly and were disappointed to find that they couldn’t. Bourn said the open-house format was used so commissioners and staff could have as many one-on-one conversations as possible with people who might not feel comfortable speaking before a crowd.

Lakes District Manager Paul Hokeness said the Park Board also wanted to avoid a shouting match.

“We were hoping to avoid that because we could have sat here for three hours and had people yelling back and forth,” he said. “The intention is to see whether or not they want a dog park and if they do want a dog park where it’s going to be located.”

Hokeness said the discussion on the park would continue, despite the different views in the community. Another meeting has already been scheduled for September.   

“There’s never complete community buy-in for any project,” Hokeness said. “This is probably a little bit more controversial than putting in a playground or something, but we’ve got to weigh the tradeoffs and look at compromises. Ultimately, it’s up to the board to decide if it’s a project.”

The number of votes against an off-leash area caught some area residents by surprise.

“It seemed like a no-brainer to me,” said Kingfield resident and dog owner Sean Clune, who said he would regularly use a dog park. “But I’ve heard more opposition than I thought there would be tonight, so it’s more obvious that there needs to be some sort of compromise.”

Outside the King Park building after the open house, members of the Dog Park Task Force said many of the people against the dog park were misinformed about the proposal. They hope to clarify the details in the coming weeks.

One task force member, Jonathan Lee, who is black, said the “no” votes from the black community represented a “very, very, very tiny portion” of that population.

The task force members said dog owners are the one population prohibited from using the park, off-leash anyway. They’re hoping to find a way to make it a welcoming spot for everyone.

“Martin Luther King was about harmony and everyone getting along together,” said task force member Brook Lemm-Tabor. “We want to bring the community together.”