A recreation revival?

The Park Board is looking into resurrecting its 
once-popular late-night youth programming at some recreation centers

If the recreation center at Martin Luther King Park stayed open past 9 p.m., friends Isaac Hodg and Kyle Lumbar would be there, shooting hoops or playing Ping-Pong.   

“It’s something to do instead of going home,” said Hodg, 13, after wrapping up a Ping-Pong match at the park on a recent Friday afternoon.   

Minneapolis Park Board President John Erwin wants to make those extended hours a reality. At an Oct. 20 Park Board meeting, he recommended allocating $500,000 for late-night teen programming similar to successful nighttime activities the organization hosted about a decade ago. The proposal came at the end of a preliminary budget presentation that showed a $314,296 cut in recreation spending, which totals more than $11 million annually.

Erwin hopes to make the program financially feasible through shifting recreation-center hours based on community need and partnering with the city on some aspects of the initiative.

His vision is for select centers to offer a variety of activities — basketball, dances, movies, maybe Nintendo Wii — for young men and women from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., probably Thursday through Saturday. The longer hours would bring stepped-up security measures including police presence and metal detectors at some locations. Transportation options are also being explored.

Aside from offering young people a way to stay active and have fun, Erwin suggested the programming could help keep teens off the streets and curb youth violence. Minneapolis has seen 34 homicides this year, many of them involving teens and young adults.

“We’ve lost a lot of teens this year to teen-on-teen violence and I think the Park Board should be looking at stepping out and trying to provide a safe place for teens to go where they can recreate and be safe,” Erwin said.

Programs of the past

The Park Board already offers occasional late-night activities, but it’s been without a consistent program for many years. One of the most successful was a late-night basketball program that disappeared when funding dried up about a decade ago.

The new program would be similar, but expanded.     

“It’s not an issue of taking a chance on something that hasn’t been tried,” Erwin said. “It’s been tried and it’s been successful.”

Corky Wiseman, assistant superintendent of recreation for the Park Board, managed Powderhorn Park during the heyday of the basketball program. He said basketball was the main draw, but teen classes, music programs and other activities were also available.

Once participants showed up, they generally stayed for the duration of the program, which went until about 11 p.m., Wiseman said. If they left, they were not allowed back in. Police officers were always on site and often played basketball with the teens.

The Park Board partnered with the city on the initiative and funding came from local and federal sources, but it wasn’t sustainable.  

“It was popular. It went fairly well,” Wiseman said. “The problem was that once the financial support went away, we weren’t able to manage the program.”

Former Park Board Superintendent Mary Merrill Anderson said PHAT Summer was another extended-hours program the organization used to offer. She said such programs had a noticeable impact on young people in the city.

“Many youth were more engaged, crime went down. We had good, positive outcomes,” Anderson said.

Making it sustainable

Wiseman said his task now is figuring out how to restructure recreatio center hours to both meet community needs and add some longevity to the late-night effort.  

“My only regret is that I hate offering things to the kids and we do it for a year or two and then we pull it and don’t have it again,” he said. “I’m real concerned about the sustainability of the funds.”

The Park Board recently started using a Community Service Area (CSA) model focused on maximizing park services based on the different needs of different communities. Wiseman said there’s no need for all parks and recreation centers to offer the same hours and services if they aren’t being used the same throughout the city.

“The goal is to meet the need of the community, to be open when they need us open and offer the types of programs they’d like to see in the parks,” he said.

Though the late-night initiative is nothing more than a proposal at this point, Erwin said he has talked with city staff about collaboration, “and they’re interested.”

Mayor R.T. Rybak, who has made reducing youth crime a priority during his tenure, was out of the country and unavailable for comment before press time. But his spokesman, Jeremy Hanson Willis, said the mayor was interested in working with the Park Board on the program, despite the budget challenges the city faces in coming years.

“We shouldn’t let these tough economic and budget times stop us from being creative and offering the programs our youth need to stay active and safe,” Willis said.

Other budget proposals made at the Oct. 20 meeting were a $250,000 allotment for a street-tree planting program and an unspecified dollar amount for new swim docks.  

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 
or [email protected]