Park Board’s delays on Trailhead lease strain relationship with Loppet Foundation

The Trailhead in Theodore Wirth Park
A series of delayed and canceled votes on a lease for a new restaurant at The Trailhead in Theodore Wirth Park has strained relations between the Minneapolis Park Board and The Loppet Foundation. File photo

Update: The Minneapolis Park Board approved the lease for Mill Valley Kitchen at The Trailhead the evening of Feb. 5. The Southwest Journal will have additional coverage as developments occur. 

A series of delayed votes and a meeting canceled due to commissioner absences has stalled a new restaurant at The Trailhead and strained the relationship between the Minneapolis Park Board and the Loppet Foundation.

A Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board meeting was called off Jan. 29 when too many commissioners were absent to meet quorum requirements. The meeting was a specially scheduled session to vote on a lease for a new restaurant at The Trailhead at Theodore Wirth Park after three prior votes on the resolution were tabled.

“It’s really unfortunate that some commissioners deemed it not important enough to come tonight to talk about really important issues,” said Park Board President Jono Cowgill, adding he believed a quorum would be present when he called the meeting. Cowgill started leading the Park Board in January, and it was the first special meeting he had called.

The vote on a lease for Mill Valley Kitchen to become the new restaurant at the Theodore Wirth Park recreation center run by the nonprofit Loppet Foundation has been delayed four times.

The lease was initially tabled on Dec. 18 in committee. The resolution has been tabled twice since, and a fourth attempt to vote on the lease failed when five commissioners were absent for the Jan. 29 meeting: Brad Bourn, Meg Forney, Londel French, AK Hassan and Kale Severson. Park Board lease approvals require six votes. 

For the Loppet Foundation, the delays have become a source of frustration.

“We don’t think this should be difficult,” executive director John Munger said.

With the delays, the Loppet has had an empty cafe space in The Trailhead during its prime busy season, a move that makes it harder to meet financial obligations and results in visitors having no place to eat and mingle with others.

“It was embarrassing to have no facility in there last weekend for the Loppet Festival,” Munger said.

The Trailhead’s initial restaurant vendor, Cajun Twist, left in November for a new space in South Minneapolis.

The Loppet first issued a request for proposals (RFP) for a new vendor in November. The first RFP got no response, but a second received two applications, Munger said. Mill Valley Kitchen, a restaurant at Excelsior & France, on the Minneapolis border with St. Louis Park, was the unanimous selection by the Loppet Foundation.

Throughout the delayed votes, some commissioners have voiced concerns that the RFP process didn’t go far enough in soliciting vendors of color or residents from North Minneapolis. The discussion broadened into beliefs The Trailhead doesn’t serve Northside residents.

“My biggest concern is The Trailhead isn’t designed for folks who live in North Minneapolis,” French said at the Jan. 22 meeting. “I don’t think it’s accessible. I don’t think the prices are accessible. I don’t think there’s enough people there who reflect the neighborhoods.”

Commissioners have also discussed a letter that included allegations that The Trailhead was not a welcoming place for Cajun Twist, a black-owned business.

Severson, who represents North Minneapolis and The Trailhead area, said he had a surgical operation in December that caused him to miss multiple meetings. He asked fellow commissioners to give him more time to look over the lease on Jan. 22. Severson said he wanted North residents to have equal opportunities at The Trailhead. 

Unprompted, he said his decision wasn’t being influenced by Bourn, French or Hassan, suggesting he was not in an alliance with the other three to deny the lease. 

“I am in no way former president Brad Bourn’s beating bag or his boy who’s going to do everything for him,” Severson said. “I make decisions in the best interests of North Minneapolis.”

Bourn, who represents most of Southwest, said he was sick the day of the Jan. 29 special meeting and knows of no coordinated effort to deny the lease. He said the letter from Cajun Twist about The Trailhead gave him pause, but he feels Mill Valley would be a good fit in the building. 

A fifth attempt to pass the resolution on Feb. 5 , included an accompanying measure that will require all Loppet Foundation staff go through implicit bias and racial equity training was unanimously approved.

Cowgill said he feared the delays were damaging the MPRB’s relationship with the Loppet Foundation.

“Every day that we push back this lease for some kind of investigation it sounds like we are disenfranchising this partner,” he said.

 “Our commitment to that partnership is unwavering, but also we are very frustrated with this,” Munger said.