Willmar City Council’s action on park plan pleases residents

WILLMAR -- Three city residents are pleased with the Willmar City Council's unanimous acceptance this week of the city's first comprehensive park system master plan. Supporters say the plan will serve as a blueprint for future park system investm...

Miller Park
Miller Park in Willmar, seen in this Sept. 17, 2014 file photo, has tennis courts, a ballfield, shelter, basketball court and playground equipment. Most of the equipment in the City of Willmar’s 37 parks hasn’t been updated in 20 to 30 or more years, said Ken Grieshaber, principal at SRF Consulting Group Inc. of Minneapolis. (TRIBUNE/FILE/Rand Middleton)

WILLMAR - Three city residents are pleased with the Willmar City Council’s unanimous acceptance this week of the city’s first comprehensive park system master plan. Supporters say the plan will serve as a blueprint for future park system investments.
Sara Carlson, David Baumgart and Steve Gardner all urged the council during the open forum Tuesday night to accept the plan. In interviews later, all three said they were pleased with the council’s action.
“As a homeowner, I am excited by the possibilities and vision the park plan delivers for both the park in my neighborhood and in developing regional parks at Robbins Island and South Swansson,’’ said Ward 2 resident Sara Carlson, who lives across from Miller Park.
“Willmar is a regional center with many wonderful amenities. This strategic, bold and aspirational plan will help spotlight our parks and position the community for the future,’’ she said.
“I know the financial numbers are large. But I have faith that our community can creatively address that problem. Many citizens were involved in creating this plan and I am grateful for the leadership of our mayor, City Council and staff to help us make it a reality,’’ Carlson said.
Baumgart said he was happy the council took the step forward and accepted the plan.
“I think some of the discussion toward the end made sense,’’ he said. “If you don’t have a plan, it’s pretty hard to move forward. We talk about Willmar being a regional center. This would even add to it.’’
Gardner has worked with people who want the parks to be improved, to be destinations “and we’ve heard nothing but positive from folks who want to go down this path. Nobody is under an illusion that it isn’t going to cost money. Nobody believes we can snap our fingers and have this done tomorrow. But it’s important to be looking in the future and having a vision for what this could be.’’
The three were among about a dozen plan supporters at the council meeting.
City staff began working on a plan in the fall of 2013, said Steve Brisendine, director of Willmar Community Education and Recreation. After completing the first phase of the study process, SRF Consulting Group Inc. of Minneapolis was hired to assist with the second phase in July 2014. Four public focus groups were held in July. Additional workshops were held in September and a community open house was held in October 2014 to review concepts.
The plan focuses on creating regional park complexes at Swansson and Robbins Island parks, and community parks at Rice, Northside, Ramblewood, Lincoln and Miller.
“We’ve put in a lot of staff hours. We’ve put in a lot of community support hours as a part of this plan,’’ Brisendine said. The plan will affect upwards of 27 to 28 of the 37 city parks in the city, he said. “It’s a very good plan.’’
Ken Grieshaber, principal, and Stewart Crosby, associate, both of SRF, presented a summary of the 63-page plan.
Grieshaber said there aren’t many cities Willmar’s size with 37 parks. However, he said many of the park facilities, including amenities and buildings, are probably 20-30-plus years old and don’t meet handicap accessibility and liability requirements.
Crosby said one concern the consultants heard was what would happen to smaller parks that don’t receive improvements if the city focuses on the larger park complexes. He said residents within five blocks of any park will have reasonable access to the parks and improvements.
“We feel this is a great opportunity to start improving the parks,’’ he said.
The consultants proposed phasing in the improvements, estimated at $22 million, over 10 or more years. Funding options include state grants, community partners, civic groups, foundations, individual and city general funds or local option taxation.
The consultants identified a five-year and a 10-year capital improvement program that allocates between $500,000 and $700,000 a year, resulting in over $6 million in improvements.
“I think people around the city would see great improvements to the parks. It is a start, something that the city could carry forward for another 10 years,’’ Grieshaber said.
Council member Ron Christianson thanked the consultants for the thorough report. He said the council has many priorities, and he asked how likely Willmar was to receive grants.
Crosby said SRF helps cities with grant writing and he said more funding options seem to be available. It all depends on what gets prioritized and what is being submitted.
Brisendine said a plan is needed for the city to receive grant dollars.
“If we don’t have a plan and we ask for dollars, we need a plan to access other resources. We’ve been told that,’’ he said.
Denis Anderson said the plan was exciting. He urged the council to accept and turn the plan over to staff to figure out how much is possible. He said the community came up with the plan and that citizens had considerable input in drafting it.
“Ultimately getting all this done really does move Willmar forward and sets us apart,’’ he said.
Rick Fagerlie asked where the consultants would start. They suggested the city start with Rice Park and improving the buildings at Robbins Island.
Tim Johnson praised the plan but said he wanted to see costs for increased annual maintenance and staffing needs.
“We need a way to go after some of this money,’’ he said. “With the other pressing financial concerns we have in the city, it’s a big task to undertake. But hopefully we can do it and do it successfully.’’
The entire plan is available at the City of Willmar’s website:

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Willmar City Council accepts proposed master park plan

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