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Willmar City Council approves first phase of master plan for park system

Even on a windy Monday, Robbins Island in Willmar draws a few visitors. In the strategic plan for the city park system, Robbins Island is targeted for development as a regional park complex, along with Swansson Field. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

WILLMAR — Strategic planning for the future of Willmar’s park system moved a step forward Monday night with approval by the City Council to accept the first phase of the plan and seek proposals to carry out the second phase.

“I think this will be money that will be well-spent for the future,” Steve Brisendine, director of Willmar Community Education and Recreation, told the council.

The second phase involves hiring a landscape architect to create a more detailed plan.

A committee has been working for the past six months to develop a plan that can become a road map for city park development over the next 20 years.

Willmar has had “a long history of support” for its parks but it has lacked a comprehensive approach to park planning and development, Brisendine said. “If we are going to do right by our parks, we needed to have a plan.”

The first phase of the plan, prepared by city staff and the Mid-Minnesota Regional Development Commission and presented to the council Monday night, lays the groundwork by outlining goals for the city’s park system.

It calls for a park system with facilities that are safe, sustainable and accessible. It urges the exploration of new ideas, especially in areas with an identified need, and innovative approaches to funding.

This first phase of the plan proposes two regional park complexes, one at Robbins Island and the other at Swansson Field.

While the report calls for a continued role for the city’s many smaller neighborhood parks, it recommends targeting the two larger regional parks for the majority of future new development, especially for amenities that are considered significant.

Doing so would create “a much more compelling narrative” for using the parks as well as for marketing the park system, wrote the authors of the report.

The plan also identifies possibilities for new park attractions such as a splash park, a dog park, an archery range, flower garden, whiffleball field and more.

The hefty document, shared with members of the City Council, comprises more than 150 pages and was developed over the past six months.

“A cross-section of the community worked on this plan over the last six months,” Brisendine said.

Input was gathered through many meetings and focus groups, he said. “We worked really diligently to get to this stage.”

Council members had several questions about how the plan was developed but voiced overall support for having a master blueprint.

“A lot of young people need more grass time,” observed Councilman Tim Johnson.

“I think there’s a lot of players in trying to create healthy communities,” Brisendine agreed. “I think we’ve got it here. We’ve just got to get our kids out there.”

Council member Steve Ahmann urged Brisendine and the committee to put together some recommendations for park priorities so that the city can maximize its resources. “We’d just like to appropriate our money and get the best bang for the buck,” he said.

Why invest in city parks?

A strong, diverse park system is a community asset that adds to the local quality of life, bringing economic, social, health and environmental benefits, wrote the authors of the report.

The report touts the variety of Willmar’s park amenities, from tennis courts and playgrounds to pickleball courts and a disc golf course. But it also sounds a warning about aging facilities and the need to keep up with future city growth, saying Willmar has “reached a critical stage for our parks.”

The plan identifies several key needs. One is the children’s wading pool at Rice Park, which closed last year after reaching the end of its useful life. Another is the Robbins Island beach, where water quality issues at times have led to the closing of the beach.

Infrastructure problems are listed, such as tennis courts that need resurfacing and playground equipment in need of repair or replacement.

A community survey conducted last fall found some negative perceptions among the public about the city’s park system. Although 42 percent of the survey’s 600 respondents said they viewed the Willmar park system in a positive light, fully 25 percent said they had a negative view of the parks, while the rest were neutral. Answers were similar on whether people felt the city’s parks were safe.

Written comments observed that many city parks are in need of TLC. Complaints also were voiced about littering and about the behavior of teenage and young adult park users.

A majority of the survey respondents said they visited a community park or recreational facility an average of once a week or more. Robbins Island, followed by the Dorothy Olson Aquatic Center, Rice Park, Miller Park and Swansson Field, were the facilities most often used.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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