NORTH MANKATO — Two groups of local residents working for years on major park improvements in North Mankato arrived at Monday night’s city council meeting in very different moods.
Supporters of the Caswell North Soccer Complex were quietly thankful as the council approved plans for a nearly $1 million 10-field soccer facility near Dakota Meadows Middle School.
Advocates for development of Benson Park were vocally perturbed that the city was on the verge of installing plastic playground equipment in the hilltop park, equipment that wasn’t part of the park’s master plan and didn’t match the plan’s natural-park theme.
The city, Mankato Area Public Schools and the Mankato United Soccer Club have been planning the soccer complex ever since the school district purchased land for a future elementary school north of Howard Drive. Extra land was acquired by the school district with North Mankato agreeing to construct and maintain the fields and the soccer club donating $150,000 for construction, plus annual contributions to help cover operating expenses.
The council approved plans for the fields, which vary from regulation-sized fields to smaller pitches for young players, and is seeking bids for the $518,000 in grading, tiling, utilities, irrigation and seeding that make up the first phase of the project. Future phases — adding concessions and rest room buildings and additional parking — will bring the total cost to $919,000.
Mayor Mark Dehen called the complex a “fantastic opportunity” that would not only provide fields for local youth but also attract tournaments that would bring teams — and their money — from the wider region.
“Soccer is a growing sport in the United States, probably the fastest growing sport in the United States,” Dehen said.
A representative of Mankato United Soccer Club said the complex is the culmination of years of fund-raising and saving by backers of youth soccer who dreamed of a premier facility in the Mankato area.
North Mankato residents with similar aspirations for Benson Park came to the meeting discouraged and upset. Led by Jim Santori, publisher of The Free Press, the group was made up of citizens who had volunteered to serve on the now disbanded Parks and Green Spaces Advisory Committee.
Most had served on the subcommittee focusing on developing a long-term vision for the largely undeveloped 70-acre piece of former farm land on the city’s north side.
When the plan was completed in 2009, with the help of a Minneapolis consultant the city hired for $40,000, the advisory committee was left with the impression that the council not only strongly supported the plan but was ready to commit $625,000 over five years to begin implementing it, Santori said.
That hasn’t happened as city officials have made — so far unsuccessful — attempts to win state funding to stretch local sales tax revenues farther. The purchase of $25,000 in plastic playground equipment for the southwest corner of the park also suggested to advisory committee members that the master plan was being set aside.
Bess Tsaouse said she spent more than four years on the committee.
“I gave my time freely,” Tsaouse said. “... I was a volunteer, and I was thrilled.”
She said she was also thrilled with the master plan, which includes prairie, an oak savanna, wetlands, playgrounds constructed of wood and designed to resemble natural areas.
“But time passed and Benson Park languished,” Tsaouse said.
Then came the plastic playground.
“That was not part of this $40,000 plan,” she said. “... Does this decision demonstrate any respect for our time and efforts?”
Dehen and Councilwoman Diane Norland, the force behind the creation of the advisory committee, disputed that the park has been languishing — pointing to the $1.6 million the city has spent since 1999 to acquire the land and begin improvements.
But Dehen, Councilman Bob Freyberg and Councilman Bill Schindle said they didn’t know the playground equipment
wasn’t in accordance with the master plan. And Norland said she was having second thoughts about natural play structures made from wood.
“Especially my teacher friends say, ‘Eww, splinters,’” Norland said. “... It’s not quite as safe as plastic.”
Santori disputed that, saying slivers aren’t a problem at properly constructed wood-based playgrounds. He asked the council to drop plans for plastic, hire the Minneapolis consultant again to help generate outside funding and reinstate the defunct advisory committee.
The council agreed to suspend installation of the equipment, although council members brain-stormed for several minutes about installing the already-paid-for playground in another part of the park until the natural play area is built.
Schindle ultimately suggested the new soccer complex that might provide a solution. The bored younger siblings of soccer players would likely be fired up to see a nearby playground — plastic or not.
“Every time there’s a soccer game,” Schindle said, “the little brothers and sisters get drug along.”