Nelson: City parks for sale? Not so fast

Published 6:50 am Saturday, July 18, 2020

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There was some conversation at the most recent park board meeting regarding possible sale of some underused public properties. Admittedly, there was even some mention regarding the feasibility of parting with some parks, but also many other areas which are not designated as parks spaces.

How much consideration is being given these thoughts?

Well, as budgetary restrictions make it more difficult to provide for the staffing needed to maintain all city-owned green spaces, the park board was asked to look at options for parting with some public properties and doing less mowing of properties. Some specific sites were mentioned, but the park board does collectively realize that neighborhood parks are a valuable asset to their neighborhoods as well as for accommodating activities for which they were specifically designed (ball fields, etc.).

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So, sale of our remnant public spaces is a possibility, but sale of key park lands is highly unlikely.

Related to such, there are numerous properties which were acquired by the city as flood buy-outs, many of which are not suited for development into parks. Many of these will be reviewed to see where there might be some leeway for consideration to return to a more natural state, meaning the distinct possibility of less mowing and maintenance.

There could still be others, such as just north of the Austin Utilities Natural Gas Transmission Plant (the corner of 31st Street Northwest and Second Avenue Northwest), which may be considered for sale. It is not marked as nor used as a park, nor does it have any park amenities, so it may have little other use other than to be developed as residential lots.

Most importantly in this review process is the aforementioned possible reduction of mowing hours (a potential savings on labor and equipment wear). There are literally hundreds of parcels, both large and small, which are included within city mowing routes, and a committee of several park board members got to participate in a three-hour field trip last week to view the vast majority of these properties that comprise the mowing routes. Thus, there are numerous areas to consider and reduced mowing and maintenance will be eminent due to reduced staffing.

For comparison sake, the following are some parks statistics from regional cities to put our workload into perspective:

Our Austin parks crew has the responsibility of mowing/maintaining 27 parks, which include 580-plus park acres and 10 miles along trails, in addition to flood areas (another 500 plus acres, much of which is currently maintained only as weather and ground conditions permit), the library, arenas, and the Mower County Senior Center. The Jay C. Hormel Nature Center offers an additional 529 acres, which are not included in the above acres-maintenance numbers, but the city had been committing one full-time maintenance person (plus seasonal help) to the Nature Center for more than two decades.

Parks staff also presently have the responsibility of pruning and trimming trees in parks and on boulevards and subsequent removal of said trees when they become diseased or are damaged due to storms, etc. Austin parks department currently has nine feet individuals plus five seasonal laborers (in a normal summer, we employ 15-20 seasonal workers) for a combined work force of 560 hours (plus rotating flower-watering shifts/staff of up to 84 hours/week) bringing it to 644 hours of available labor per week this summer.

Owatonna has 811 acres in 33 parks plus 17 miles of trails, with additional labor applied regularly at the water park, senior center, tennis center, admin grounds, library (including custodial), golf course, and maintenance of city-owned lots. Owatonna employs nine regular FT parks maintenance staff, four part-time, and 18 seasonal (31 seasonal last year) for a combined estimated labor force of 1,160 hours per week during the summer months.

Albert Lea has 41 parks and recreation areas that comprise just over 450 acres of park properties mowing, plus they maintain 190 acres in road right-of-way, and 11 miles of trails. Albert Lea employs nine feet parks maintenance staff plus 12 seasonal staff (in a normal year, they employ 18-20 staff in seasonal parks care) for a total combined labor force of 840 hours per week during the summer months this year.

Faribault has 43 parks. Their total green spaces mowed/maintained (inclusive of parks, flood properties, ball fields, etc.) is 386 acres, and they mow/maintain along 8.6 miles of trails. Faribault’s parks department has 6 FT parks care staff and 7 seasonal staff for a total labor force (FT and seasonal combined) of 520 hours per week during the summer months.

Please note that Austin’s parks department isn’t alone in feeling budget reductions. There will be fewer staff across many departments going forward, and there will also be fewer dollars available for completing public-serving capital projects. Thus, we will learn to be even more efficient with our staff and our/your resources.

What can you do to help? There is presently one individual volunteering his time mowing approximately two full days per week at the Nature Center. His volunteer work is coordinated with our office and the Nature Center, so we’re not looking for random people to show up with mowers and trimmers. However, there are plenty of opportunities for clean-up or weeding maintenance (and possibly even mowing) within our parks, and we’d be more than happy to coordinate any individual or group efforts which you’d like to offer. Clean-up may be as simple as carrying (and making use of) an empty garbage bag when walking on trails, in parks, or within the Nature Center.

If you’d like to lead a group effort, we can provide garbage bags, gloves, and even use of litter grabbers. If you have creative ideas to assist, please contact us.