NORTH MANKATO — There’s been some incremental progress in implementing North Mankato’s ambitious $2.5 million vision for turning the wide-open spaces of Benson Park into a spectacular nature park that will draw visitors from throughout south-central Minnesota.
But much of the planned work has been put on hold in the hopes that hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funding might be on the horizon — a prospect that would permit the city to get key parts of the park development in place in a matter of years rather than decades.
The North Mankato City Council has agreed to try — at least one more time — for the bonanza from the state’s Legacy Act sales tax proceeds.
The city’s application totals $828,000 and covers roughly the first third of the planned improvements.
If state officials view the application more favorably than in previous attempts, 50 to 60 percent of that $828,000 would come from the Legacy Act sales tax collected statewide for a variety of purposes, ranging from hunting and fishing habitat to water quality improvements to arts and culture programs.
North Mankato’s half-percent local option sales tax would be used to provide the other 40 to 50 percent. The variability of the local match stems from the fact that the city is applying for two different Legacy Act grants.
If North Mankato won under the Legacy Act’s “regional parks” program, the city match would be $331,000, which is 40 percent.
The city is also applying under the “park legacy” grant program, which
doesn’t require a match. Applicants are, however, given “additional consideration” under that program if they commit to a local match, City Planner Mike Fischer said. He proposed the city offer a 50 percent match in hopes of boosting the application’s chances for success.
“We feel that shows a strong commitment to the project (by the city),” Fischer said.
One North Mankatoan wondered at last week’s council meeting if the city was overextending itself on the local sales tax, which voters approved in 2006 for park improvements, a library expansion, downtown redevelopment and upgrades to the Highway 14/Nicollet County Road 41 interchange. A 50 percent match would total $414,000 and the local sales tax is projected to generate $480,000 to $500,000 a year.
“That’s almost a whole year’s revenue flow,” said Phil Henry of the 50-50 match under the “park legacy” grant application.
But park advocates, including Free Press Publisher Jim Santori, strongly encouraged the council to support the application.
Santori, whose neighborhood is adjacent to the 70-acre park, noted that the Benson Park master plan was completed more than three years ago.
“It’s time to now make an investment as a city to further this along,” he said.
Bernadette Wilson, who formerly operated a day care facility near the park, said the current park — with its ponds and small trees and trails — has minimal amenities for children.
“As it stands right now, they basically made it around the park, they chased away the geese, and that was it,” Wilson said.
If the grant is awarded, the city expects to complete planned prairie and woodland habitats, install underground water and sewer systems, plant a wildflower area, build a fishing pier and construct a parking lot.
City officials thought they were in a strong position to win a grant in previous attempts, but Fischer said state officials explained a year ago that they preferred to aim the Legacy Act money at land acquisition for parks, redevelopment of existing parks and improvements to “parks of regional significance.”
That approach leaves Benson in something of a no-man’s land. The city has already purchased the land. The park can’t be redeveloped because it’s never been developed in the first place. And it will only become a park of regional significance if the master plan is implemented — which takes a big chunk of money.
“They indicated that new park development generally has not ranked high,” Fischer said.
The master plan envisions a park unlike any other in the region — absent the athletics fields, plastic playgrounds and large lawns in typical city parks but with numerous habitats ranging from marsh to oak savanna and natural play areas for kids, including shallow streams and woodland-themed playgrounds.
This year’s application attempts to get the grant application judges to look into the future.
“We’re making a strong point that it is a regional park,” Fischer said. “... At full development, it will be used by others from throughout the region.”
Another rejection might not mean improvements to Benson will be delayed entirely, though, because park advocates are losing patience and the City Council might be, as well, Fischer said.
The state money would allow the local dollars to stretch farther and get more work done right away. But the council might be ready to go it alone, even if that means a longer timeline for development.
“I have to believe at some point, if we don’t get funded, then yes,” Fischer said.