Is the Chain of Lakes overloaded?

Some neighbors concerned that special events are overburdening Lake Harriet, other popular lakes

Mary Anderson has been managing races big and small in the Twin Cities for 15 years, generally helping nonprofits plan, promote and conduct charitable runs and walks.  

She does more than 200 such events a year, and bar none, Lake Harriet is the venue her clients ask about first.

“God made [Lake Harriet] the perfect 5-K,” said Anderson, who also noted the lake’s central location 
and regional familiarity.

Most of the time, Anderson has to tell her clients to find a weekend when the weather is unpredictable or to find a different venue. Lake Harriet’s weekends are booked up with races that have been going on for 15, 20 and 30 years. Late summer and early fall, when the weather is dry and mild, are typically the busiest; Lake Harriet hosted six events in three weekends in late September and early October.

Lake Harriet’s popularity — as well as lakes Calhoun and Nokomis — is no surprise to neighbors, who are starting to feel like every weekend there’s a race, a walk or a concert that backs up traffic and wipes out parking spaces.

Neighbors have been feeling it more recently, as the Park Board has increased the number of movies and concerts in the park. The introduction of Bread & Pickle at Lake Harriet has also increased park usage.  

A few neighbors have begun showing up to recent Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board meetings asking that commissioners find a way to spread the runs out a little, perhaps nudging some of the organizations toward Victory Memorial Parkway or St. Anthony Main.

Park Board staff, due to neighborhood complaints as well as consideration of wear and tear, is drafting a new policy meant to balance the lakes’ value as good fundraising venues with local needs.

“We’re trying to respond to the neighbors and their concerns,” said Shane Stenzel, who manages special events permits for the Park Board.

Stenzel could not reveal details of how the new policy might work, as legal counsel is still reviewing it. But the policy — which will need board approval — will limit the number of road closures to twice a month at each park.  

More feet on the pavement

Stenzel has noticed a number of trends that are likely leading to increased neighborhood concern. Races are getting longer, as runners want a mixture of 5-Ks, 10-Ks and half-marathons. That means longer events that keep people in the parks for more of the day.

He’s also noticed that more nonprofits are turning toward races and walks to raise money for their causes, because donations and grants have dwindled during bad economic times.

That’s what makes the Park Board’s task so difficult. Commissioners say they have to balance the needs of their constituents with important charitable work.

“We are out of balance, but we’re out of balance for good causes,” said Commissioner Brad Bourn, who represents Southwest.

Races in Minneapolis parks raise money for Special Olympics, hunger, autism, cancer, inner-city youth and a whole slew of other causes.  

Be The Match Foundation held its first-ever Twin Cities run at Lake Harriet on May 21, even though May weather in Minnesota is about as predictable as the 2011 stock market.

That weekend’s weather will not be forgotten by Minneapolitans. A rainy weekend was capped off by a tornado that destroyed the North Side.

Still, 1,600 people participated in the event, raising $156,000 toward helping find bone marrow donors for those in need. The money will also go toward helping patients financially.

Be The Match also got much needed publicity at Lake Harriet and convinced 105 people to sign up for national registry and potentially save someone’s life that needs a transplant.

“Our experience was only positive,” said Teri Vogt, the organization’s director of national events. “Our plan is to do it again next year (on May 19).”

The Park Board will also have to take into consideration the revenue stream from special event permits.

The Park Board has given out 170 special event permits through Oct. 3, with another 20 scheduled before the end of the year. Those permits have generated $765,000 in Park Board revenue through Sept. 20. Last year, special event permits generated $1 million in Park Board revenue.

The Park Board raised permit fees in 2008, partially to capture costs associated with staffing police officers and repairing parks after events.

After the fees increased, Stenzel expected the Park Board would lose events. Some organizations paid four times what they had been paying under the new fee structure.

“Nobody left,” Stenzel said. “More came.”

A possible win-win solution?

A Park Board committee has been brainstorming ways to deal with event-overload around Calhoun, Harriet and Nokomis.

One idea is gaining the most traction: Encourage organizations to move their events to other parts of the city like St. Anthony Main, Victory Memorial Parkway and along the upper riverfront.

Victory Memorial Parkway has undergone major renovations over the past few years, and the 2.8-mile stretch makes an ideal place for events, Anderson said.  

“I’ve done many races on Victory Memorial Parkway, and I like it up there,” she said. “It’s just that it has that stigma with North Minneapolis, but once people go up there it’s like ‘wow, it’s so beautiful.’ It’s just a matter of people becoming more familiar with it.”

But if the idea of leaving Harriet, Nokomis and Calhoun doesn’t catch on, the Park Board will likely have to force the hand of organizations.

That could be made easier with ongoing investments in parks in North and Northeast Minneapolis.