City park funding on the ballot in Duluth, St. Cloud this year

A man stands on a basketball court that has weeds growing through asphalt.
Jim Filby Williams, director of property, parks and libraries for the city of Duluth, stands on a dilapidated basketball court at Observation Park in Duluth on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Tucked away in a neighborhood in Duluth, on top of a rocky bluff overlooking Lake Superior, sits the aptly named Observation Park. The view is gorgeous, but the park itself needs some work.

A sign reads "Observation Park"
Observation Park, shown here on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022, just west of downtown Duluth, hasn’t been substantially renovated in 70 years.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

"We have a terribly dilapidated sports court with badly buckled basketball courts and tennis courts that are not safely usable today,” said Jim Filby Williams, who directs property, parks and libraries for the city of Duluth, as he walked around the park.

Recently the city used donations from local residents, businesses and nonprofits to replace a hockey rink at the park with a small dog area, but the park hasn’t been more substantially improved in 70 years.

“What is really necessary is $2, or $3, or $400,000, to remove all of that pavement, to reconstruct it, and to repurpose it for contemporary activities," said Filby Williams. He says those might be basketball, pickleball, skateboarding “or whatever the adjoining neighborhood says is important to them.”

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But Filby Williams said the city doesn't have the cash to make those capital improvements at this park, and at many of the city's other 121 developed parks. It’s especially tough for small neighborhood parks, which aren’t eligible for grant funding or tourist tax dollars that help fund more prominent Duluth parks and trails, such as the Lakewalk or Enger and Hartley Parks.

A park sits behind a chain linked fence.
Duluth officials are proposing to increase the city’s property tax levy to help fund capital projects and maintenance of neighborhood parks like this one in Duluth.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

So the city is asking voters to help out, and not for the first time.

A decade ago, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Duluth voters approved a property tax increase to raise $2.6 million annually to help support city parks.

"The establishment of the levy at that time saved the Duluth parks. Full stop,” said Filby Williams.

But he said that funding model had what's now seen as a fatal flaw. The levy that voters approved is capped. It can never grow. Meanwhile, the cost to improve parks is continually growing.

Now the city is asking voters to change the park fund levy from a fixed dollar amount to a percentage of property value. That would increase tax collections for parks to about $4.1 million, an amount that would grow as Duluth’s tax base increases. It would also raise annual taxes on a median priced home by nearly $50 a year.

It’s a step cities around Minnesota and the country are increasingly taking; cash-strapped cities struggle to balance funding for parks with other services they provide, such as public safety and infrastructure.

This year, at least three cities in Minnesota — Duluth, St. Cloud and Waite Park — are asking voters to increase their taxes to pay for parks and trails. Nationally, there are 62 state and local park or land conservation measures on the ballot this year, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to public spending for parks and conservation, it usually is a lower priority than many other demands that cities are facing,” said Will Abberger with the nonprofit Trust for Public Land.

"And that's why ballot measures like the one in Duluth are so important.”

Paying for parks

In 2011, 57 percent of voters in Duluth supported the park levy, even as on the same ballot voters rejected three other requests to raise property taxes to increase funding for local schools.

Since then Duluth has built a reputation as a destination for outdoor recreation by investing in hiking and mountain bike trails, walking paths — even an ice climbing park. Funding from the park levy has been used to restore many of the city’s large destination parks.

This time, officials say their priority is to improve neighborhood parks and community athletic venues.

A man holds a child in his arms, people gather for a meeting behind them.
Joe Fisher and his daughter Jade went to a community meeting at Portman Park in Duluth on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022 on the proposed city park levy. Fisher’s kids play hockey at the park, and he’s concerned about the future of community athletics.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

After a recent public meeting on the proposal at Portman Park, on the city’s east side, Joseph Decker said he plans to support the park levy.

"I've always been so thankful to have those resources close by right in town, where, whatever neighborhood I'm in at the time or wherever my friends live, there's a park nearby. It's just such a valuable resource for our city's quality of life to invest in these parks," Decker said.

But the plan has gotten pushback. The Duluth newspaper recommended voting against it, arguing it's a terrible time to ask for a tax increase.

At that same meeting, in response to a question about whether an allocation from the city’s general fund might be appropriate if the need was so drastic, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said the city could raise property taxes and not put the question directly to voters.

"We could cut other services to make more money available for parks,” Larson said. “I don't see a path by which that works, to be really honest.”

She said nearly half the city budget goes to public safety.

“There isn't a whole lot of wiggle room there,” she said.

Cities around the country seeking parks funding

Duluth is not alone. Cities around the country are struggling to pay for their parks.

The Trust for Public Land found the nation's 100 largest cities are spending less per capita now on their parks than they did in 2007, before the financial crisis.

In St. Cloud, voters are being asked to approve a property tax increase so the city can spend $20 million over the next three years on park improvements. As in Duluth, the money would be used to maintain and restore neighborhood parks, said Mayor Dave Kleis.

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis talks about the city's newest park.
St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis supports a referendum to fund the city's parks.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

That could mean adding playground equipment, he said, “or maybe taking a tennis court and making it a pickleball court. It might be taking what used to be a wading pool and making that a splash pad.”

Kleis said usage of the city’s nearly 100 parks spiked during the pandemic and hasn’t receded. He argues parks are critical for economic development.

"One of the important pieces about attracting workers and retaining workers is quality of life. And parks are a big part of that, trails are a big part of it, the recreation piece is a big part of it,” said Kleis.

Duluth officials make a similar argument. Filby Williams said the city’s green spaces attract residents, help businesses recruit workers, and are the engine of the city’s vital tourism industry.

“And so under-investment in park spaces is of even greater consequence in Duluth than it would be in other communities, where parks and green space are less definitional to the community,” Filby Williams said.

State history of supporting parks

If history is any indication, the measures in both Duluth and St. Cloud are likely to pass.

According to the Trust for Public Land, since 1988 there have been 37 parks or land conservation measures at the state or local level on the ballot in Minnesota. Thirty-one have passed, a higher success rate than park referendums have enjoyed nationally.

That includes a referendum two years ago in Rochester, Minn., where more than 60 percent of voters approved a $2 million annual property tax levy to help pay for parks.

It also includes the Clean Water, Land & Legacy Amendment that voters passed in 2008, which raised the state sales tax to pay for parks and trails, as well as arts and culture and environmental protection.

"So when Minnesota voters have been given a chance to vote for dedicating funding for parks and conservation, they've overwhelmingly voted 'Yes,'" Abberger said.