After 19 years working his way up the recreation services department of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Al Bangoura left Minnesota to become the recreation superintendent for the parks system in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2015. After four years out east, Bangoura returned to Minneapolis in January to lead the Park Board.
As his first year as superintendent came to a close, Bangoura sat down with the Southwest Journal to discuss his push for youth programming, the future of the Bde Maka Ska pavilion, working with the Board of Commissioners, living at the Theodore Wirth House and more.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What is it like to be back leading an organization you worked in for so long? How does your experience in the MPRB shape the way you lead it?
One of the reasons it was easy for me to come back is because of the people who are currently here. For me, just knowing the professionals that were here, the people that love their work and have a passion for it and being committed to the system. I knew them from just being a part of the system. So, the 19 years, starting over at Webber Park and working my way to the director of recreation services, that experience was really important to me because it was like being at the ground level of where things happen. Being in the recreation piece of it, it was evident to me that all of decisions that are made here, and the input from community and people, the direct services that we provide to our residents— I experienced it. For me to be in this role now, I have a really great understanding and I’m in awe of it.
Why was youth programming such a big push for you in this first year?
This board was clear about what their mandate was: It was about youth. When they did the search, they were looking for somebody who not only had this understanding and feel for this organization, but somebody who really had a strong recreation and youth-focused background, too.
There’s the visual piece of the world where you see the beautiful trees and canopies, you see the trails and lakes. You can see the park system from these views, but what tends to be forgotten is these rec centers that exist and the services we provide in those areas that touch the lives of youth every day. When they leave school, or even in the summer, where do they go? They come to our rec centers. They come and they look for places to engage and be a part of. We have a unique opportunity in our facilities to reach the lives of these kids — to give them access and opportunity, to give them places to grow and learn.
How do you balance the wants and needs of those who experience parks as a pleasant place to run or walk through and those receiving services at rec centers? At the end of the budget cycle there was this debate over forestry needs versus youth programming that echoed that theme.
It’s not either-or, it’s and-both. They both are incredibly important and significant to the work that we do and both deserve attention and time. When someone’s running around the lake, they’re experiencing this incredible environment and it just becomes normal. But it’s the same thing when you have a facility in a particular neighborhood and you have youth who walk down there and families that depend on that space. They’re not separate from each other; they’re just experiences that you have. We think holistically about this incredible park system and what it provides to people.
The more the youth are exposed to our parks, they become advocates for the system and that’s important. When we talk to youth about the environment and our tree canopy, that’s important. We need to provide quality, exceptional services in our facilities that meet kids today, so they come to us and see park and recreation not just as a ball and a gym but how they get access to improve their lives.
The fire at Bde Maka Ska was an unexpected hardship this year. What do you envision for that space going forward?
With the insurance piece, we’re working with about $1 million. We’re also looking at other funding to consider what the next evolution of that space will be. With the funding piece that we have, that location where the pavilion was is where the next building will be. We’re limited by the value of what we have, and we have to build it in the next two years, or we lose the depreciation recapture value. So, there’s an urgency to do it.
We have 8 million visitors a year at the Chain of Lakes. We need to restore simple services like restrooms and drinking fountains. Then we sort of look at what the replacement of the building looks like there. What we also hear is now, when you go by there and see that beautiful view unobstructed, it’s pretty nice.
So, we’re considering different designs. It might not be the same pavilion idea. What does it look like? How do we maintain the views?
When you were starting your role, there was a lot of talk about park commissioners not getting along. Do you see part of your job as trying to help them get along and work better together?
Yes, because a board that has sort of a collective direction — and everyone has their different agenda — makes for an organization that can work through things more efficiently. It’s not going to be perfect and it never is because we have nine elected officials. They represent the people. My job is to make sure we’re listening because that is the voice of the people.
I meet with every individual board member monthly. My effort is to make sure I’m not only hearing what’s coming from the dais but I’m sitting and listening to what’s important to them. We might have our strategic goals, but those goals are set by the board. My responsibility is to the operational direction of this organization.
In Southwest we’re currently getting through the master plan process for neighborhood parks and Minnehaha Creek Regional Park. The master plans rely heavily on Community Advisory Committees (CAC), which some feel gives too much power to a small group of people with spare time to participate. What do you think of the CAC process?
I think the CAC process is probably the best way right now for engaging the community. By the end of 2020 we’re going to have every single piece parkland master planned, which is amazing. The CAC process is just a part of all the things we do to engage community. And it’s important to understand the CAC is really advisory. There are focus groups, intercept surveys, and a host of other methods that we use. The CAC, though, is an important part of that. I think there are people that have a very particular interest who can come into a CAC and have a singular idea. All CACs are open to the public to attend and today it’s easier for people to follow what the CAC is doing with online updates and email lists.
The interesting thing is the CACs have driven issues like Minnehaha Parkway. I’ve received I don’t even want to know how many phone calls and emails, but the piece that’s important to the CAC is their recommendations shifts decision making. Because the board has made decisions based on responses from the community. The CAC hears that feedback and then they can adjust.
It doesn’t just sit where the CAC is ten people and that’s it. It’s way more than that. I don’t want people to think it just ends with the commissioners because the power of it is the voices. We make sure we hear from everybody. The more that we hear, we respond.
You’re now a Southwest resident at the Theodore Wirth Home near 38th & Bryant. What’s it been like to live in that historic home?
I’m really enjoying it. I love being in the park and walking to the Peace Garden and the local shops and restaurants and seeing people sledding on the hill.
When I look at the house, I’m always grateful and blessed and in awe of this responsibility that I have. It reminds me every day when I come home or when I leave that place of the responsibility to the people that I serve.
My son and wife love it. Also, knowing that we’re the first family of color living in this home is incredible. It reflects the city we are today, the diversity of this city and this population. It’s an incredible thing and it’s a beautiful house.
There is a Southwest-based group (Minneapolis Community Clay Courts) pushing for public clay tennis courts in the city, and we’ve heard you’re a tennis player and have been working with them. What excites you about adding that feature to the parks?
I love it. From an older person— I’m 53 and played competitive my whole life— if you look at guys who play on hard courts, their ankles and hips have all sorts of problems. Clay courts, it’s softer on the body. You can move on them much better.
There used to be clay courts at The Parade when I was a kid, and my brother and I used to play on the courts and water them. There is a certain amount of care and love for these courts.
To play on clay courts is literally a privilege if you don’t have them in public, because you only find them at private clubs.
Many of our hard courts are in disrepair. With clay courts you don’t have to worry about them cracking like that. It’s more cost efficient, better on the body, and they’re beautiful. And here’s the cool thing, the people that are talking about this are the ones that are going to be caring for them. So, the people using the asset are the ones who are going to be watering them, cleaning them and lining them. That’s amazing.
It’s an asset that is rare in a public entity, and why wouldn’t Minneapolis want to lead on that? Also, for children of color to be able to have access to that, and I was one of those children, it’s pretty amazing. I’m looking forward to it.
What do you think the future of golf courses as park assets are?
Twenty percent of our park land is golf courses. Revenue in itself is not going to solve the expense that goes into golf. From 1998 to 2018, the number of rounds of golf played on our courses diminished by half.
In 2020, I want to do a more thorough study around it. For the last 10 years there’s been significant revenue loss in golf. Here’s what I’m clear about, I want golf in our city to be the best. I want to have the best courses and I want it to be the best experience for our residents. I don’t know what the future will be, that’s for our community and our board to work out. What I want to do is at least acknowledge it, to talk about it and work through it.
I think in the next year there has been strong signals for change. What that change looks like, we will see. It doesn’t mean we’re going to sell something. It’s a problem around the country for public courses. We need to pay attention to it and understand there is a large revenue gap in golf. If we want to charge more, we need to improve the courses.