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Public weighs in on Kandiyohi County parks

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Todd Lief, right, manager at Games Lake County Park, discusses park needs and suggested capital improvements with one of the participants at an open house Thursday. The open house was held as part of the planning process for a long-term comprehensive vision for the future of the Kandiyohi County park system. Anne Polta / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — The public had a chance Thursday to weigh in with their ideas and priorities for the future of the Kandiyohi County park system.

More than 50 people attended an open house designed to obtain input and spark dialogue about the improvements they'd like to see. Consultants have already identified several of the most pressing capital needs but participants at Thursday's event had additional suggestions of their own: More playground equipment. A basketball court. Beach cleanup.

All of the feedback will be considered when the consultants with Wenck Associates and the Mid-Minnesota Development Commission sit down this fall and begin drafting a plan that will outline a long-term vision for the future of the parks.

The process, which began last year, is the first time Kandiyohi County has undertaken a comprehensive plan for its park system.

"We care about the parks. We're trying to make the parks for everyone to enjoy," said Larry Kleindl, county administrator.

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Interest has been high, said Matt Johnson, community development specialist with the Mid-Minnesota Development Commission. "We've had positive feedback," he said Thursday.

Few Minnesota counties own and operate park systems as extensive as Kandiyohi County's. The five largest parks — Big Kandiyohi Lake East, Big Kandiyohi Lake West, Diamond Lake, Games Lake and Green Lake — all boast campgrounds and swimming beaches. The county also owns the popular Saulsbury Beach park in Spicer. The smallest county park, on Lake Carrie south of Atwater, consists of a picnic area and boat landing.

The planning process includes all the parks but focuses on the five largest ones, which also see some of the highest use.

One of the clearest needs to emerge so far is an update of the camping sites to reflect modern-day camping rigs, Johnson said.

Most of the campgrounds were developed decades ago when small pop-up campers were the norm and it has become challenging to accommodate the needs of larger rigs, he said. "We know that a lot of the parks need to be upgraded for electrical services."

Concrete camper pads need to be enlarged at most of the parks, and most of the bath and shower facilities are due for replacement or upgrades.

Other needs that cropped up several times during an assessment by the consultants include general maintenance, beach maintenance and updates to boat ramps.

An online survey completed earlier this summer by more than 360 respondents indicated a desire for more amenities such as Wi-Fi and fishing docks. Several people said they'd like to have full utility hookup — water, sewage and electricity — at each camp site. The survey also generated several suggestions for recreational facilities — a disc golf course, horseshoe pits, a baseball field, grills and more.

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"There's lots of things that are consistent from park to park but each park has unique features and things it would like to see in the future," Johnson said.

Some of the most vocal concerns, voiced both in the survey and at the open house Thursday, were about an online system for camping reservations that was launched as a pilot in 2018 and fully implemented this year. Several said they found it frustrating and difficult to use and wanted to be allowed the option of phoning in their reservation. There also were complaints about a recent policy revision that limits the ability of campers to get the same camping site each year.

Both issues are policy issues and outside the scope of the park plan, which focuses on capital improvements, Johnson said. But he assured the crowd Thursday, "Administration has heard those loud and clear."

The final plan will prioritize park needs and create a five- to 10-year timetable for accomplishing the goals determined to be most important.

"It'll give us a road map to help everyone be on the same page," Kleindl said.

Few of the needs have come as a surprise to county officials, and the process has in fact reaffirmed the county's own awareness of the improvements that should be made, he said.

Many of the suggested upgrades will be expensive, however, and will have to be undertaken over several years, Kleindl said. "You still have to keep camping affordable, so we try to do a little bit each year. Those are challenges."

Parks are often the first item to be pared back whenever public budgets become crunched, he acknowledged. But the county parks also have value as a recreational asset for Kandiyohi County and a magnet for anyone who wants to enjoy the beloved Minnesota activities of boating, fishing, swimming and camping, Kleindl said. "These are public parks. We want people to have a good experience."

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Games Lake County Park, one of seven public parks in the Kandiyohi County park system, is among the parks being discussed in regards to upgrades and a long-term plan. West Central Tribune file photo

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