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CLOQUET CITY COUNCIL: Council debates how and where to spend on parks

The project at Fauley Park is coming along. The sidewalks have been poured and the picnic table has been used several times in the last few weeks since the work began. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com

What is more important: maintaining the parks and recreation areas we already have, or building new ones?

That was the question posed by Ward 2 Cloquet City Councilor David Bjerkness to City Administrator Brian Fritsinger during Tuesday evening's work session regarding next year’s budget.

Like everyone else, the city only has so much money to spend on its projects and decisions need to be made.

There was a lot of back and forth as questions and answers were tossed between the councillors, Mayor Dave Hallback and Fritsinger while they tried to decide which park and recreation projects should be top priority in the upcoming years.

The redesign of Athletic Park in 2021 was crossed off the list because money has been designated to other park projects first.

Bjerkness shared his opinion with his fellow councilors and Fritsinger.

“We should not be held hostage by a ball field,” Bjerkness said, referring to the fact that volunteer members of the community worked with the Parks Master Plan in 2013 and said they want to see the high school baseball program moved from Athletic Park to Braun Park and redevelop Athletic as a “neighborhood park.”

“It's just a plan, it's meant to change,” Bjerkness said.

Some of the other reasons listed for moving the baseball field were fly balls going into neighbors’ yards, parking issues, grandstand conditions and the lack of an irrigation system.

Ward 4 Councilor Kerry Kolodge said moving baseball to the two fields at Braun Park would allow both junior varsity and varsity teams to play at the same time, which would eliminate late-night games.

Other planned improvements at Athletic include more green space (where the baseball field is now) plus a new shelter/warming house where the baseball grandstand sits now and skating where the baseball parking now sits. If the skating rink was moved, it would open up space along 14th Street for a bigger playground and restroom facilities. Angled parking on the north side of Prospect Avenue would increase on-street parking to replace the existing parking lot.

“It doesn't seem fair when you look at what's being done at Pinehurst and Churchill,” Bjerkness said emphatically. “It bothers me!”

Ward 5 Councilor Steve Langley agreed.

“I am wondering if it's taxpayers money well spent relocating the baseball field,” Bjerkness said. “Maybe we need to think about what does Athletic Park look like with a ballfield.”

Is there a way to phase or do pieces to improve the appearance and usability of Athletic Park, Bjerkness also wondered, other than the skatepark. And how committed to the skate park is the city, he asked.

Fritsinger assured the members that the skatepark was “just” a one-time contribution of $300,000.

“The sequence of staging the projects, it all makes sense,” Bjerkness said, but he immediately questioned the proposal to delay any Athletic Park improvements.

Fritsinger told the councilors that if everything goes as planned in the next few years, realistically there will not be money to do any projects at Athletic Park until 2030, which is why it had been crossed off of the list.

“You have some control here,” Fritsinger advised the council. “Let me restate the question another way: Is Athletic Park important enough to slide to 2017?”

None of the council members said it was.

Fritsinger told the council that he did feel there was money on the table from park projects in 2017-2018.

“Why don't we take the $100,000 for the warming house at Pinehurst Park and put it towards the one at Athletic Park?” Kolodge proposed. “That thing is an eyesore.”

Fritsinger admitted the building has been there forever, but the city has not heard complaints about it.

Bjerkness also questioned why creating recreational areas like new bike and pedestrian trails are taking priority over existing parks.

The short answer is it’s the public's choice, Fritsinger said, then went on to remind council members that there had been meetings held with the public to figure out what the majority wanted to see done with the sales tax money, along with efforts by the Parks Master Plan Task Force and a second, later, volunteer community task force that considered only parks and trails along the riverfront.

“This is the time for us to be talking about it,” Fritsinger added.

The bulk of the improvements to city parks and trails are mostly being paid for by a half-cent local sales tax approved by voters in 2012. To date, the city has collected about $2.8 million in sales tax — and the amount approved for the 2016 parks projects is about $2.6 million.

When the sales tax was approved by Cloquet voters and the state legislature, revenues from the Cloquet sales tax could only be used for the following items according to legislation:

  • Construction and completion of park improvement projects, including — but not limited to — the St. Louis riverfront area; Veterans, Hilltop and Braun parks; Pine Valley (both the woodland park and two hockey arenas) and development of pedestrian trails within the city.

  • Extension of utilities and improvements associated with the development of commercial property adjacent to Highway 33 and Interstate 35.

  • Engineering and construction of public infrastructure improvements, including storm sewer, sanitary sewer and water, as well as city streets.

To date, according to Fritsinger, 100 percent of the sales tax has been spent on park projects including the following: Pinehurst Park tennis and basketball courts, new parking lot and renovated hockey and softball facilities, a new disc golf course at Hilltop Park, as well as a new athletic field at Hilltop Park being used by the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College’s football program, and the Sunnyside Park/Churchill School tennis court upgrade, all done in 2015. So far in 2016, there have been improvements at Fauley Park (by the train) and landscaping on Skyline Boulevard. Extensive renovations at Veterans Park are just beginning and a new Hilltop Park playground is also on the list for 2016.

In other discussions, the Northwoods Credit Union arena needs a dehumidifier and will need a new roof. Also looming for the two hockey arenas is the fact that the refrigerant used to make ice in both facilities is being phased out by 2020 — it will still be available but no longer manufactured — and consultants told the city in 2014 that replacing the ice plants and/or floor pipes in both arenas could cost anywhere from $1.2 million to more than $3 million.

During the regular City Council meeting, councilors took the following actions:

  • John Anderson was appointed as the new assistant city engineer effective Aug. 31. He is currently holds the same title in Arden Hills, Minn.

  • The council authorized the lease of a 2017 Ford Interceptor utility vehicle for the Cloquet Police Department at the state bid price of $24,930.72. Leasing saves the city $2,760.23. The department anticipates the biggest savings for the lease option in vehicle maintenance costs as they are included in the lease price. The only maintenance cost to the department would be for the purchase of tires.

  • The council awarded Stack Brothers, Inc. the Slate Street sidewalk project bid. The initial grant award for the project was 80 percent or $113,000 of the initial project estimate of $143,050. Now the Minnesota Department of Transportation has agreed to match 80 percent of the low bid amount of $149,989.

  • The council awarded a contract to Short Elliott Hendrickson, Inc. (SEH) for a utility extension study in the amount of $58,735. The study is to predict what the potential return on investment, the feasibility and if there is a need for major utility extensions of a water mains in rural residential areas surrounding central Cloquet.

  • Council members voted to increase lawful gambling expenditures from 70 percent to 80 percent. That means gambling organizations are required to now spend 80 percent of their profits from gambling in the community, even if the organization is headquartered outside of the area.

There is a design visioning workshop for the proposed skateboard park at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 18, at City Hall. The public is welcome to attend and give input.

PIne Journal Editor Jana Peterson contributed to this story.

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