ST. CLOUD — After years of underfunding dozens of neighborhood parks across the city, St. Cloud is set to invest $20 million in park and trail amenities over the next three years.
That’s thanks to St. Cloud voters, who on Nov. 8 approved a tax hike to fund much-needed improvements. Officials estimate that the average homeowner will pay $58 more per year in taxes over the next two decades.
“We have nearly 100 parks – over 1,600 acres of parks – and the challenge we’ve always had with neighborhood parks is that there really isn’t a good source of funding other than property taxes” said St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, who said parks often get left behind in annual budgets because the city needs to focus on adequately funding public safety and other essentials, like parks. roads and sewers.
Many of the city’s regional parks – Eastman Park, in the heart of the city near Lake George, or Whitney Park, home to several sports fields and the YMCA – are funded in part by a regional sales tax that helps distribute the costs on those who use the facilities but do not necessarily pay the tourist taxes.
Scott Zlotnik, who oversees the city’s parks and recreation department, said the success of the referendum – with nearly two-thirds of voters saying yes to the tax hike – shows just how important parks are to the community. And that appreciation has increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zlotnik said.
“A percentage of the population had never really used the parks [before the pandemic] but that was really one of the only things they had – parks and open spaces and opportunities for outdoor recreation,” he said.
Over the next few months, city staff will begin identifying possible projects with input from the Parks and Recreation Advisory Council and residents, Zlotnik said. Funds can be used to maintain and create parks, trails and green spaces. The money will likely be used to buy necessities like new benches and trash cans, as well as to create more accessible spaces.
The funding could also be used to convert tennis courts into pickleball courts or wading pools – which have been closed for three years due to the pandemic, a shortage of lifeguards and high maintenance costs – into wading pools.
Zlotnik said the city will also try to raise private funds to stretch taxpayers’ money even further, such as during the renovation of Eastman Park and Lake George more than 15 years ago, where the Rotary Club of St Cloud contributed to the $3.5 million project.
Despite the park’s strong fundraising success, a separate sales tax question on the ballot to fund up to $21 million in improvements to the Municipal Sports Complex (MAC) failed with only about 47% of voters. in favour.
It was just one of three sales tax proposals in the state — out of 21 proposed on ballots this year — that were voted down by voters, according to the League of Minnesota Cities.
Winning proposals statewide included $6 million to repair and expand the ice rink in Cloquet, $10 million for a community recreation center in Litchfield, and $31.6 million for improvements to the regional library and of the community center in Moorhead.
St. Cloud received $10 million from the Legislative Assembly’s bail bill of 2020 to make improvements to the regional sports facility and the proposed sales tax would have funded the city’s share of the renovation project. MAC skating rinks, improving the baseball field and improving accessibility.
Kleis said the MAC has enormous economic value to the city and surrounding community because it draws people to the area for tournaments and games, who in turn spend money on hotels, shops and restaurants. But if voters don’t go to baseball games or have kids playing hockey there, they might not know about the facility, Kleis said.
“The voters said ‘no’ and I think you are listening to the will of the voters,” Kleis said, noting that officials will continue to push the project forward. He said he plans to ask the Legislature if the city can waive its required local game or extend the deadline to meet the game and instead try to raise funds from private donations.
“We need to have quality of life amenities to keep people in our community or bring employees into the community,” he said.
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