Benson Park 3/3

A $2.5 million plan to turn Benson Park from a largely vacant piece of former farmland into a premier regional park was adopted by the North Mankato City Council Monday.

The plan, developed by a Twin Cities consultant and a committee of local volunteers, will take years or even decades to implement depending on the success of numerous grant applications the city will make to cover the cost. But council members said the plan won’t wind up gathering dust on a city hall shelf.

“Uh, uh. Not with this park committee,” said Councilwoman Diane Norland, who heads the Park and Green Spaces Committee. “No. We’re committed.”

Several hundred thousand dollars from a new half-percent local sales tax will be applied to the development of the 70-acre park on the city’s north side. And that money could serve as matching money in seeking grants from a variety of sources, particularly revenue from a state sales tax approved by Minnesota voters on Nov. 4 and dedicated in part to regional park improvements.

The availability of the local sales tax revenue to match grants from state or federal agencies will put the city at an advantage in the grant competition, particularly with most local governments struggling to balance budgets during the economic recession, said City Administrator Wendell Sande.

“There have been some communities that already have returned grants (because they couldn’t provide the required match),” Sande said.

Paul Paige of Hoisington Koegler Group Inc., a Minneapolis urban design and planning consultant hired to help develop the plan, recommended $618,000 of initial projects that could be funded over the next five years even without grants.

The early spending should be focused on planting of trees and prairie habitat ($110,000 over the first two years) and construction of a pair of playgrounds ($35,000 in the second year for one aimed at pre-school kids and $110,000 in the third year for a larger playground).

Construction of the main park building, including restrooms, would occur during the third to fifth years and would cost $200,000. A picnic area would be added in the fifth year at a cost of $45,000. The remaining 20 percent of the costs would cover design, engineering and contingency costs.

A parking lot costing $180,000 would be required whenever the popularity of the park overwhelms existing parking along Timm Road.

Future phases of the park plan would be implemented as $1.8 million becomes available in the following years or decades. Those projects include construction of a bay off of Ladybug Lake ($180,000), a stream and water play area for kids ($260,000) and a woodland play area ($100,000). A bridge over the long, narrow storm-water pond on the park’s west side, a fishing pier, a wetland with a boardwalk trail, an oak savanna and an additional trail are also in the plan.

The overall theme is of a nature park with various habitats and even playgrounds that are made to resemble natural areas.

The plan received good reviews at a community open house last month, and again Monday when brought to the council for approval.

Councilman Bill Schindle, who voted against hiring the Hoisington Koegler Group because he thought their $40,000 fee could be better used for park improvements, said he still feels that community members could have developed a strong master plan. But Schindle said the plan approved Monday will eventually result in a great park.

“It’s a good plan and I think it will be implemented,” he said.

When it will be implemented is impossible to predict, he said, rubbing a thumb against his fingertips in the universal sign for money: “It comes down to one thing.”

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