Spotlight on St. Anthony Park Community Council

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This is the first in a series of articles that will examine the various District Councils in St. Paul.

Ray Bryan first ran for a seat on the St. Anthony Park Community Council (SAPCC) when he was a renter back in the mid seventies. He was concerned that some decisions being made regarding the St. Paul neighborhood would negatively affect area residents.

“The old schoolhouse at Territorial Rd. and Raymond Ave. was slated for demolition by the school board,” said Bryan. “I thought there might be some use for it that could benefit the community. The SAPCC eventually played a key role in converting Baker School to its current use as Baker Court, a small business center.

“The Council also took a stand in getting historical buildings along the University Ave. corridor and Milton Square designated for preservation,” said Bryan. “And when the Midway Park Bank wanted to expand and relocate to Como Avenue, the council aided the bank in getting community input on the design of the new building.” Bryan is still an active member of the SAPCC and serves on the land use committee.

Amy Sparks has been Executive Director of the St. Anthony Park Community Council (SAPCC) for more than two years. She says the best part of her job is working with volunteers. “It’s a great group of positive, dedicated people who are working to make a difference one issue at a time.”

According to Sparks, the most challenging aspect of her job is the number and variety of tasks. “I do everything from drafting the budget to working on community cleanups to writing ads to managing meetings to addressing traffic concerns to managing consultants to writing grant requests to vacuuming the floor and emptying the garbage.”

What are District Councils?

St. Paul, noted for its unique neighborhoods, has been called “the city with fifteen small towns and one mayor.” In fact, St. Paul has not fifteen but seventeen city districts, each with its own District Council. The size of the organization and method of operations varies according to each council’s articles of incorporation and bylaws. Each District Council is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation with a few paid staff and elected board members who volunteer their time in service of the community.

As an independent organization, each District Council hires its own staff members, including an executive director and/or community organizer, clerical assistance, and a crime prevention coordinator. District Council employees are not city employees. The amounts the city provides the District Councils are calculated on a formula which includes a base amount of $30,000 per district, and then adjusted for population and percent of poverty. Individual allocations average in the range from $33,000-$44,000. A formal City/Agency agreement is required, which includes goals and objectives, work plans, and an evaluation component. City-provided dollars typically help finance staff, office space, supplies, and communications. Citizen participation financing is provided from city general funds, and the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program.

Most District Councils are active fundraisers, with many receiving substantial foundation and corporate support. In addition, some organizations receive additional city support for neighborhood development activities through citywide competitive processes.

When District Councils were first established in 1975, an early notification system resolution was also passed. This mechanism requires city departments and agencies to notify district councils, neighborhood organizations, and individual residents of pending city actions that will affect them.

District Councils plan and advise the city on the physical, economic, and social development of their area, as well as on citywide issues. In addition, Councils identify neighborhood needs, initiate community programs, and recruit volunteers. Each neighborhood office serves as an information and referral resource. District Councils inform residents through community newspapers, neighborhood newsletters, flyers, and community events. Each board member is part of a committee focusing on specific issues such as land use, environment, community connections, and crime prevention.

Sparks works full time as executive director along with a half-time community organizer. Twenty-one people volunteer 4-8 hours a month as board members. Fifteen are delegates who vote when decisions are being made. Six are alternates who attend meetings but only vote when delegates are absent. All board members are elected annually.

“Residents vote at the library and the Co-op every April,” said Sparks. “It’s set up so that there are five delegates and two alternates from each of the three delegations – North St. Anthony Park, South St. Anthony Park and the commercial and industrial sector.”

The SAPCC is currently involved in a number of projects including one aimed at revitalizing Hampden Park. Located on Raymond Ave. just north of Territorial Rd., “the park could soon become an even more vital and meaningful green space,” said Sparks. “We are working in partnership with the City of St. Paul, the Capital Region Watershed District, the Ramsey Soil and Water Conservation District and the Metropolitan Design Center. Enhancements could include a community gathering space, installation of gardens, including rain gardens, and added safety features.” Members of the SAPCC’s Environment Committee are currently surveying residents to get their feedback on park renovation.

Other current SAPCC projects include developing a welcome kit for new residents and increasing participation in the Senior Chore Service. Seniors pay a small amount in exchange for services such as lawn care, house cleaning, and snow shoveling. The workers are people who live in the neighborhood and have expressed interest in participating in the program. Often, they are young people who are seeking work experience. “Interactions between generations is an important bonus of this program,” said Sparks.

The Senior Chore Service serves ten neighborhoods and employs two people part time. The program receives $30,000 a year in funding from the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging and $11,000 from St. Paul’s Community Organization Partnership Program (COPP).

SAPCC board members are also involved in the Rock-Tenn Community Advisory Panel (RCAP). The panel exchanges ideas and information about the development of a renewable energy plant to fuel the Rock-Tenn Company’s paper recycling facility now that the High Bridge power plant has stopped burning coal. A proposal to use “refuse derived fuel,” or fuel produced by burning garbage is controversial.

On September 26, the League of Women Voters (LWV) submitted a long list of recommendations for improving the district council system to the St. Paul City Council. According to the League, the city is not doing enough to support the district councils through the training of staff and board members. The report is the product of a LWV study that was co-chaired by former City Council member and St. Anthony Park community organizer Bobbi Megard. She opposed the elimination of the citywide citizen participation coordinator position, which was cut in 1994 by then-Mayor Norm Coleman and never restored. Megard hopes that the LWV report will lead to greater public and private investment in the district council system.

The SAPCC gets $37,000 annually from a Citywide Participation grant, $15,200 for crime prevention, and $2,741 from COPP.

“This year, we received money from the St. Anthony Park Foundation to pay for a planner to put together the Como Avenue 2030 Small Area Plan,” said Sparks. “As a way to plan for the future of St. Anthony Park’s Como Avenue, the SAPCC is in the process of developing a vision to plan for the next 20 to 25 years,” said Sparks. The plan will include detailed goals, actions, design guidelines, and recommendations for housing, commercial uses, zoning, environmental issues, and circulation until the year 2030.

The SAPCC holds two fundraising events a year including a letter sent to neighborhood residents and a tour of area homes that have been recently remodeled or have historic/architectural significance. “We hope to raise $12,000 this year but I’m not sure we’ll meet our goal,” said Sparks. “We’re planning on a budget of $151,134, but our usual budget is around $100,000.

The SAPCC also owns a community garden at Robbins and Raymond Ave. Over 96 vegetable and flower plots are rented to community members annually. The garden is organic and is managed by volunteers. Plots are assigned on a first come/first served basis early in the year.

“We raise about $3,000 from fees charged to people using the garden,” said Sparks. “But all of it goes toward garden expenses.”

Over the last 12 years, SAPCC has worked to protect and preserve the wetlands, habitat corridors and ponds in St. Anthony Park. The sites are utilized by a wide range of species, including migratory waterfowl and birds. In particular SAPCC has dedicated its energy to protect and preserve the Kasota Ponds, which are historic wetland remnants found at the intersection of Highway 280 and Kasota Avenue/Energy Park Drive. There are multiple ponds at this location, in addition to underground springs that once fed this
matrix of waterways.

In 2003, SAPCC received a grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to undertake a major clean-up of the wetland sites, install a variety of bird and bat
boxes, plant a large number of native plants, and hold water monitoring and observations. Additionally, they conducted a study of the historic Bridal Veil Creek Watershed, which concluded in 2006.

The SAPCC’s website asserts: “The Kasota Ponds continue to serve as an important habitat and ecologically functioning part of our neighborhood, so the SAP Environment Committee continues to provide opportunities for neighbors to get involved. Every spring there is a Kasota Pond Cleanup, traditionally held close to Earth Day.”

Katrina Plotz is a substitute teacher, free-lance writer and anti-war activist from Bloomington.