The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 25, 2014

Mankato's park plan is both ambitious and expensive

Mankato's park plan is both ambitious and expensive

By Mark Fischenich
The Mankato Free Press

---- — An ambitious and costly plan to improve and expand the Mankato park system is nearing completion, including changes great and small at virtually every park in town and the addition of new parks for the fast-growing eastern and southern sides of the city.

The plan would take years, even decades, to implement but is aimed at setting priorities and reserving land for recreation and relaxation as the city develops farther into the countryside. It also details additions at existing parks, ranging from the lofty to the mundane. There’s everything from a $2.5 million pedestrian bridge across the Blue Earth River to connect Sibley and Land of Memories parks to $5,000 for benches at Washington Park.

“Some of these things will come and go,” said City Manager Pat Hentges of the items that he characterizes as “the wish list.”

The plan is an update of the original master plan for city parks completed in 2002.

“It should be revised every 10 years,” said Parks Supt. Mark McQuillan. “You go back and look at what you’ve accomplished and then set some new goals.”

Estimated costs of maintenance, improvements and some expansion of existing parks totals $13 million. Add in a regional sports complex, a large new water park, and additional parks and trails in growing parts of the city, and the price tag quickly triples.

Much of the cost, though, represents necessary maintenance and upgrades. And even the “wish list” includes items that community members have been requesting for Hentges’ entire 18-year tenure in Mankato, such as a water park or at least some water-park features added to the existing Tourtellotte Park pool.

The bottom line: The list of wants and needs, even if only partially completed, will probably require a new source of funding.

“I don’t think this is going to go away for the council,” Hentges said. “Can they create priorities? Yes. But it’s not going away.”

The council will get its first look at the draft plan at Monday night’s meeting.

New parks

The park plan, as it did a dozen years ago, identifies the need for three community parks on the south and east sides where virtually all the residential growth is occurring. Community parks are large (20-50 acres typically), meet the recreational needs of multiple neighborhoods, and should be no farther than 1.5 miles from every home.

But four of the five existing community parks — Land of Memories, Sibley, Riverfront and Kiwanis — are all on the Minnesota River, which serves as the western city limits. The fifth, Tourtellottee, is also in the valley.

To meet the goal of having a community park within 1.5 miles of every home, especially with city growth projections, a trio of community parks will be needed in coming years directly east of Mankato, southeast of town and directly south. A map showing possible locations puts one at the intersection of Blue Earth County Road 12 and County Road 17 (Madison Avenue when within city limits), another between Pohl Road and Highway 22 just south of Tanager Road, and a third along the Le Sueur River between Highway 66 and County Road 16 (Stoltzman Road).

The plan calls for at least purchasing land for the future parks before it is swallowed up by subdivisions or other development.

“These days, with ag land prices, a million dollars doesn’t go too far,” Hentges said. “... You need a large, large acreage and you also need a large, large amount of money.”

And it will take at least $1 million more to add basic amenities, such as playgrounds, ball fields, sports courts, picnic shelters, restrooms, trails and parking lots.

The potential to create at least one community park on the southeast side could come with the construction of a new middle school, which voters approved in a November referendum. Mankato Area Public Schools officials are still searching for a site for the school, but it’s possible the district and the city could collaborate on a land purchase with the intention of eventually adding a neighborhood park or larger community park, Hentges said.

“That’s probably the best hope.”

Looking local

Along with having large community parks scattered evenly across Mankato, the park plan calls for smaller neighborhood parks within walking distance of all homes — and without any major streets to cross.

Ten of these exist already, including well-known parks such as Highland and Erlandson. There are another half-dozen mini-parks that don’t meet the 5-10 acre size considered ideal for neighborhood parks.

But another 17 will be needed as the city continues to grow, scattered mainly across the southern side of Mankato plus a row of three between Lime Valley Road and County Road 12 on the city’s far north side. Some already-developed areas in or near the city are also absent a neighborhood park, including the Lincoln Park neighborhood, the LeHillier area of South Bend Township, Skyline and the neighborhood southeast of Minnesota State University, including the University Park manufactured home park.

Financing the land acquisition for new parks in developing subdivisions is doable because of park dedication rules that require developers to provide land or an equivalent cash payment for neighborhood parks. The plan warns, however, that land alone doesn’t make a park: “Funding for actual park improvements must come from some other source.”

The cumulative cost of developing the neighborhood parks, from establishing turf and planting trees to installing playground equipment and basketball courts, can be daunting, Hentges said. And the city already has two new neighborhood parks — Wings Over White Oak and Trail Creek — that are far from complete.

“Right now, conservatively, it takes $250,000 to improve those 5-, 6-acre parks,” he said.

Big ideas

Outside of sports facilities and swimming pool upgrades, one of the biggest proposals is the construction of a bridge to connect two of Mankato’s largest parks — Sibley and Land of Memories. A park user with a strong arm could throw a stone from one park to the other across the Blue Earth River, but to get from one to the other takes a trip via Highway 169 of about a mile.

The $2.5 million trail bridge could potentially be funded with state money as part of a long-range state plan to build a bike trail the length of the Minnesota River. Other major projects proposed for the parks include new restrooms and an upgrade of the existing campground shower/restrooms at Land of Memories ($500,000 combined) and a redesign of the hillside leading up to the pergola at Sibley ($300,000).

Highland Park would get a $300,000 neighborhood meeting room with restrooms to replace the shelter that was damaged by fire.

A combined $800,000 is proposed for development of neighborhood parks where the land is already publicly owned — Heron Park near Rosa Parks Elementary School and Kearney Park overlooking Thompson Ravine.

The plan also recommends numerous trails to expand and connect the existing trail system in the city and region. That includes creating parkways along major routes by adding trails, sidewalks and landscaping. Some of the suggested routes are Stoltzman Road, Monks Avenue, Highway 22, Thompson Ravine Road/County Road 3, Madison Avenue, Hoffman Road, Stadium Road and Schostag Road/Hungry Hollow Road.

And the plan encourages the city to work with other agencies to protect natural areas in light of Mankato’s inexorable expansion. It specifically identifies wetlands east of the lake of Eagle Lake and wooded areas in all directions from the city.

Big money

Even if the plan is pared down significantly by city leaders, there will be plenty to do and plenty to pay for. Roughly 5,000 people are projected to be living in new neighborhoods on the eastern side of the city in coming years, and existing parks need basic upgrades and renovations even if major improvements are delayed.

“The challenge of expansion beyond what we currently have is really the challenge of funding,” Hentges said.

The report lists a wide variety of funding sources, ranging from user fees to state grants. But the potential sources for really big money are more limited.

One option to free up major dollars for park improvements is special legislation to expand the use of the city’s local option sales tax, now reserved for downtown redevelopment area and the airport. A voter-approved bond referendum is another possibility.

“They’re not going to be funded with the normal operational funding of the city,” Hentges said.

A story in Sunday’s Free Press will look at how many of the ideas in the original 2002 parks plan were implemented, and Monday’s Free Press will focus on the high demand for a new and expanded sports park and how the plan addresses that demand.