Park Board commits cash for dog park, MLK memorial

The board is also planning to form an advisory group to evaluate potential off-leash sites within Martin Luther King Park and elsewhere

In a showing of support for a new Southwest dog park and a revamp of a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. at his namesake park, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board on Dec. 1 approved an allocation of $32,500 for each project.

The money will come from an unexpected $45,000 overage in dog park license fees collected during the last year and $20,000 from the neighborhood Capital Improvement Program. Both projects are in early stages and actual costs are unknown. Commissioner Brad Bourn (District 6), who represents most of Southwest, said they might be cheaper, but he thought committing funding was important to prioritize the efforts.

“We don’t want to tell people, ‘thanks for all the hard work, but there’s not really any budget to do that,’” Bourn said.

Additionally, the Park Board’s Planning Committee approved the formation of an appointed community advisory committee (CAC) to evaluate potential dog park sites at Martin Luther King Park and other nearby locations. The full board is expected to approve the group’s formation Dec. 15 and appointments would be made shortly afterward. The goal is to select a site by February and start construction in April.

A citizen task force working with the Kingfield Neighborhood Association (KFNA) proposed a dog park along the sound wall at King Park, 4055 Nicollet Ave., earlier this year. Support appeared overwhelming at an initial presentation of the plans, but two later public meetings were extremely divisive and racially charged.

Supporters, most of them white, wanted the added amenity to socialize and exercise their pets, build community and reduce crime. Opponents, most of them black, viewed King Park as sacred ground, a memorial to the slain civil rights leader and a family park that is no place for dogs, which during King’s time were commonly used to attack civil rights marchers.

During the last public meeting Sept. 2, dog park opponents also brought attention to the park’s neglected sculpture honoring King. The park’s dedication to King four decades ago seemed forgotten, some said.

After that meeting, the Park Board decided to split the dog park and memorial issue into separate initiatives. The board plans to organize a second community group to develop a plan for the memorial.

Park Board staff estimated that refurbishing the existing sculpture and re-landscaping around it would cost about $750, but Bourn and At-Large Commissioner Annie Young voiced concerns about doing the bare minimum. They said something might need to be done beyond the sculpture to improve the park’s symbolism.

“I don’t know if spending $750 to clean a statue is a significant sign that we’re taking that concern seriously as a board and as a city,” Bourn said.

Young eventually proposed the even allocations for the memorial and dog park after a lengthy discussion about how and whether to fund the projects. The funding was approved despite a plea from Commissioner Scott Vreeland (District 3), chair of the board’s Administration and Finance Committee, not to allocate money for preliminary projects that aren’t yet planned.

“I am not ready this evening to spend a lot of money on a statue,” he said, noting the grim economic outlook and tightening budget. “…On this night, I urge my fellow commissioners not to vote for a statue when folks are hurting.”  

When told about the vote the next day, longtime Kingfield resident Willie Mae Demmings, who said last summer that she thought the park’s symbolism had faded, was skeptical about the board’s intentions.

“Doing the memorial, to me, is just their way of appeasement,” she said.

But she said she would like to see an enhanced memorial, “so it can be brought up to date, so everyone knows what it is.”

She said she was still steadfast against an off-leash area at King Park and mentioned that other opponents haven’t budged. She said she was glad the board was looking at alternatives.

The Park Board plans to direct the dog park advisory committee to assess support at the top three sites chosen during a 2001 search and other locations the group identifies. The top sites chosen a decade ago were Kings Highway and 39th Street, Kings Highway and 40th Street and Nicollet Avenue and 42nd Street.  

Ben Harris, a member of the neighborhood task force that introduced the King Park proposal, said his group has already done extensive research on potential sites. But he’s hopeful this new effort will finally bring an off-leash area to District 6, the only Park Board district without one.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that this is not where this issue goes to die,” Harris said.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.