MANKATO — The creation of an expansive new nature park — the largest local park in the Mankato area — appears increasingly likely with final approval coming by early July.

The joint project between the Mankato and Blue Earth County would transform a gravel mine into a 218-acre nature park, complete with lake-size bodies of water, riverside trails and fishing spots.

The City Council strongly supports the creation of the park just southwest of the city. And in a meeting of the Mankato-Blue Earth County Intergovernmental Committee Thursday morning, Commissioner Kip Bruender said a majority of the County Board is now behind the idea.

"I definitely think there's votes to secure it," Bruender said.

Choosing an owner

City and county representatives on the committee indicated a willingness to share in the purchase price. The only question is who takes title to the land, something some members of the County Board are increasingly interested in.

"I think the county should do it," said Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg of taking ownership, suggesting the county would be better able to resist inevitable pressure by some to create a highly developed park with more intensive uses. "I think it would really help on the whole process."

Ownership would bring some ongoing maintenance costs, but those would be minimized if the land is kept as a nature park with trails, fishing spots, canoe/kayak launches and not much more. That's the preference of both the city and county, according to those at the Intergovernmental Committee meeting.

They want to avoid paved trails, construction of roads beyond an entrance road, and development such as large campgrounds with plumbing-dependent restrooms.

Decision approaching

County Administrator Bob Meyer said his plan is to bring the issue to a board workshop early next month for discussion with a final vote possibly coming June 21. If the county agrees to move forward, the City Council would follow — probably at its first meeting in July.

The sale would likely be completed by September, said Mankato Community Development Director Paul Vogel, although public use might be initially restricted to walking in from the adjacent Red Jacket County Park.

When area nature lovers get access to the site, they'll find a scenic and sweeping property complete with ponds with sandy shores in places, access to the Le Sueur River, tree-lined paths, wildlife including redtail hawks, songbirds, deer and, at least on Thursday morning, a bald eagle.

"It's a beautiful area, and it's so close to the city," said Council Member Karen Foreman. "It's really important to preserve it for the public."

The land is owned by Southern Minnesota Construction, a subsidiary of Oldcastle Materials Inc. of Atlanta. SMC stopped mining operations many years ago on the Guaranteed Gravel and Sand Site nearest the Red Jacket Trestle and County Park, and discontinued mining more recently on the Sanger pit closer to Mount Kato.

From concept to creation

The process has moved quickly since The Free Press first reported in May 2015 that SMC officials were in preliminary discussions with county and city officials about selling the property for use as a park. In the following weeks, the council indicated unanimous support for pursuing the idea, although some suggested the county needed to take the lead because the land was outside of the city and adjacent to existing county park land.

A majority of the County Board was hesitant initially, suggesting Oldcastle would need to offer a deep discount on its price and state grants would be necessary to cover most of the cost.

Oldcastle corporate executives eventually offered a $225,000 price, substantially less than the $600,000 appraised value of the properties. The city, the county, or both in partnership, need to act by Aug. 1, when the option to purchase the land at that price expires.

Exploring costs

A grant application, which would cover $100,000 of the purchase, is being reviewed by state officials with a decision expected by the end of June, Vogel said.

"They said it was very well done," Vogel said of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' reaction to the application.

Bruender said the grant would be very helpful, but the cost for the city and county might be manageable regardless.

"The worst case for each is $112,500," he said.

A preliminary environmental assessment found no major issues that would drive up costs. A demolition landfill permit was obtained in the 1970s for the site, Vogel said, involving disposal of rubble from a demolished downtown Mankato building — possibly the historic Saulpaugh Hotel.

"It was felt there was not a lot of potential for contamination (from the building materials)," Vogel said.

SONAR testing of the two bodies of water created by the mining showed average depths of 18 to 22 feet. That has generated strong interest from the DNR to develop the lakes as fisheries, including installation of a fishing pier accessible by people with disabilities.

"They've been looking for opportunities to do that, so they're very excited," Vogel said.

Large park, small upgrades

The 218 acres of new land, combined with existing parkland owned by Blue Earth County and Mankato-owned flood-control property, brings the total amount of public property in the area to more than 300 acres. The sprawling park would stretch from the edge of Skyline to the Red Jacket Trestle. That would make it easily the largest local park in the Mankato area, with only Minneopa State Park larger.

If the purchase is approved, the entrance road would be improved, a formal trail system would be established, and the fishing spots would be added, Vogel said. Fencing and signs also would be needed.

Large amounts of black dirt would need to be added to some sections of the park that are dominated by sand and gravel, but that soil is expected to be available as part of the planned reconstruction of County Road 1 (formerly Highway 66) that runs through the area, said Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges.

Keeping it simple

While those initial development costs should be relatively minor, pressure will come to add amenities in the future, Hentges predicted, adding the city would prefer that not happen.

"Being this close to Mankato, there's going to be a lot of groups saying, 'We want this and this and this,'" he said.

Stuehrenberg said county ownership of the park would make it easier to resist that.

"If the county owns it, I think I can guarantee that there will be less development," Stuehrenberg said.

According to county officials, Commissioner Drew Campbell strongly supports county ownership and Stuehrenberg said he does, too.

"If you guys pay for it and we run it, that would be even better," Bruender joked.

And, Stuehrenberg said, it would be nice if the city could make an annual maintenance contribution.

"I would think $100,000 a year would be just fine," he said, prompting laughter from Council Member Mark Frost.

Although some details need to be hammered out during the next month, Bruender and Stuehrenberg advised against joint ownership of the park.

"It's kind of like having a split mother and father both trying to raise a child," Stuehrenberg said, indicating he'd like the county to have custody of the new park.

If that's ultimately the decision, Hentges predicted the public will be happy with the results — pointing to the county's transformation of more than 50 acres of farmland into the scenic Indian Lake Conservation Area nearly 20 years ago.

"They'll do a nice job with it," he said.

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