OPINION | Are they giving away our parks?

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It was just a few years ago that the Minneapolis Library Board gave away our library system to Hennepin County because they could no longer afford to pay for it. It was the first step in transforming a world-class reference library into a pop stand for pulp fiction. Now it seems we’re headed down the same slippery slope with one of the best park systems in the country.

We lost the libraries because the library board couldn’t figure out how to pay their bills. They built a massive new main library downtown at the same time Governor Pawlenty was intent on stripping cities of local government aid. They had developed an edifice complex, where a building became more important than their original mission.

The park board is having similar problems. People keep giving the park board things, and then the park board has to take care of them.

Rajahs in India used to bankrupt a neighboring prince by giving him a white elephant. The white elephant was sacred, but added to the honor of owning the sacred animal, the prince had the expense of feeding it and taking care of it. This soon bankrupted the prince, and his neighbor could then take over his kingdom.

Are the rich people in Minneapolis playing the same game?

The Berger Fountain is a case in point. Ben Berger was one of Minneapolis’ more colorful characters in the 1940s and ’50s. He owned the Minneapolis Lakers (before they were sold to Los Angeles), the Minneapolis Millers hockey team, a number of movie theaters and Sheik’s Café (before it became a “Gentlemen’s Club”). He was also a park commissioner, and he admired a fountain in Sidney, Australia, and had a copy made and gave it to the City to be put in Loring Park. But, like the white elephants in India, the Dandelion Fountain is high maintenance. Its construction is very complicated and it keeps breaking.

Enter Ray Harris!

Ray Harris made a small fortune as a developer parlaying tax increment financing into construction schemes for Calhoun Square in Uptown and then Greenway Gables Townhomes off of Loring Park. He took a flyer on Block E and the Sears building on Lake Street but couldn’t get those projects off the ground. Greenway Gables is where he lives and where he is still active. When he was working on the Greenway Gables project he got special treatment because he gave the park board the green walkway from the Berger Fountain to the Nicollet Mall. It was good for him: It made him look like a prince to the City Council that gave him special tax increment financing; it increased the value of the properties; and it put the maintenance of the Greenway off onto the Park Board. It was a perfect white elephant, and now it seems the prince has returned to claim the kingdom.

In a Dec. 16 column in the StarTribune in 2005, Barbara Flanagan talked about how Ray Harris “can’t stop tending to this city where he has spent about 50-plus years developing parts of it.”

“There are three ‘little things’ that have Harris back in action.

“One is Peavey Plaza on the Nicollet Mall at 11th Street. Then there is the Loring Greenway leading from the Mall to Loring Park and, in the park, there is the Berger Fountain.

“ ‘The Park Board doesn’t care about fountains. They accept them and then ignore them,’ Harris said. ‘The Berger’s foundation needs lots of work. It’s leaking. And there are so many other things that need repair on it.

“ ‘The [Loring] Greenway is in horrible condition,’ he continued. ‘It’s supposed to be a charming walkway from city streets to park greenery. Well, take a look at it. The one good thing I can tell you is that the city has agreed to repave it, which will give it a temporary lift.

“ ‘Then, Peavey Plaza next to our Orchestra Hall is in horrible condition,’ he said. ‘The surface needs to be replaced. It needs greenery. At night, it could be dangerous. The orchestra realizes it, but it is not their worry. Peavey Plaza is city property.’ “

Now, six years later, the plan has come to the surface. On June 15, 2011, Don Siggelkow, the assistant superintendent for development services for the park board brought a proposal to the Innovation and Development Committee of the park board that spelled out an operating agreement framework for the park board and the Downtown Park Alliance. The work team that made the proposal were Anita Tabb, the park Commissioner representing the downtown district; Bob Fine, the conservative Park commissioner who headed up the park board before the new wave of populists took over; Tupper Thomas, the president of the Prospect Park Alliance, a private nonprofit corporation that has taken over management of Brooklyn, New York’s largest park; Don Siggelkow; and Ray Harris, modestly identified simply as a Loring Park resident.

The proposal is simple: turn over the operation of Loring Park and the Sculpture Garden to the Downtown Park Alliance and taxpayers continue paying for maintenance at the current level. The Alliance will determine whether to continue the Art Festival and the Pride event at Loring, and the Alliance would have the power to “create and manage new events.” And, if the park board is willing to give up control of the operations of these parks, then, maybe, the Alliance will be able to generate private funding for more beautiful and sacred white elephants. But rich people can’t be expected to donate money to the parks if they don’t have control over the operations?

And the park board seems to support the proposal. Scott Vreeland, perhaps the most populist of the DFL commissioners, said on the Minneapolis Issues List:

“Does this make sense and how would it work? We have just started a process to see if a conservancy model is helpful and appropriate for a Minneapolis park and perhaps as a mechanism for future acquisition and funding of much needed green space in downtown Minneapolis that could connect to the river.

“In Loring Park there are neighbors who want to make a long term investment to beautify and make capital investments in the park. And for them the conservancy model is the best way to galvanize a substantial and sustained effort which would go beyond the current ‘Friends of’’ model.”

Wouldn’t it be better just to give back the white elephants and let the people keep their parks. Give the Berger Fountain to some corporation that wants to put it in front of their office building on Nicollet Mall. Give the Loring Greenway back to Ray Harris and let him maintain it. Give the Sculpture Garden back to Walker Art Center and let them pay for cutting the grass, and give Peavey Plaza to the Minnesota Orchestra. Why do we have to keep getting more and more stuff? Ray Harris has sold the park board on the dream of a greenway that goes from the Sculpture Garden and Loring Park all the way to the Mississippi River. Great! If some rich people want to build a private greenway with public access that stretches the length of downtown, let them, just don’t expect the taxpayers to pay for the maintenance and upkeep. Our priorities should be maintaining and improving existing programs in our parks.

We are in danger of developing a two-tier system of parks in Minneapolis: a boutique greenway system for rich older white people and understaffed and poorly maintained programs for children of color. It’s not too late to turn this around.

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