DNR highlights Jay Cooke woes

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If visitors to Jay Cooke State Park want to use an indoor restroom, they're out of luck. The only choices now are a port-a-potty or an outhouse.

The park's water line was damaged in October, leaving it without running water. But it's not the only repair needed at the park — the shower-and-restroom building is too small for the 83-site campground, the Oldenburg Point picnic shelter's deteriorating roof has shingles falling off and the Oldenburg Point restroom building still hasn't been restored since the 2012 flood.

Jay Cooke's problems are indicative of repairs needed across the entire state park system, Minnesota Department of Natural Resource officials said Tuesday, March 27.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr stood in front of Jay Cooke's port-a-potty, located outside the information building in lieu of the non-working restroom inside, to advocate for Gov. Mark Dayton's public works legislation that includes $130 million for needed repairs, which would begin to chip away at the DNR's backlog of $370 million in maintenance on its facilities, roads and trails.

Minnesotans like to get outdoors and the state shouldn't have second-class recreational facilities, Landwehr said.

"In two months, this place is going to be crawling with people. All of our parks, all of our trails, all of our public water accesses are all going to be crawling with people. We really want people to have an enjoyable experience, a safe experience and recognize that getting outdoors in Minnesota is one of those things we do as a people," Landwehr said.

Jay Cooke park manager Lisa Angelos said that park employees take pride in providing the public with a good experience.

"When things deteriorate to the point of being beyond what can be reasonably done with the amount of staffing, it's discouraging for them because it reflects upon them. It's their pride, it's our pride as Minnesotans. It's the state and what we have to offer the rest of our visiting public — the citizens and from farther away," Angelos said.

DNR facilities are assessed on a rotating basis and the Northland includes more than 80 sites where facilities have been rated in poor or unacceptable condition, according to the DNR.

The DNR would need $155 million annually for the next 10 years to bring all of its facilities up to an average rating, according to the department's 10-year capital asset report. Catching up on deferred maintenance ends up costing more in the long run — upgrading a facility from a poor rating to a good rating costs four times more and upgrading from an unacceptable rating to a good rating costs 12 times more than staying on top of maintenance, said Matt Massman, commissioner of the state's Department of Administration.

The DNR typically receives less funding from the Legislature than it needs. When it requested nearly $72.5 million in 2016, it received $15 million. The DNR would like to take care of the facilities that it has and "we need significant funding to turn the corner on that," said Kent Lokkesmoe, the department's director of capital management. If the DNR receives less than the requested $130 million this year, it'll have to prioritize projects to address the worst problems first, he said.

Massman noted that projects included in Dayton's proposal are local projects.

"Here at Jay Cooke State Park, much of these facilities are already rated, using an industry best-practice standard, in crisis or just the poorest condition that needs to be addressed by this bonding bill," Massman said.

Angelos pointed out that the park's deferred maintenance totals $1.1 million and bridge repairs total $350,000, in addition to trail maintenance costs.

Jay Cooke has a total of 350,000 to 370,000 visitors annually. Last year, 37,000 overnight visitors stayed at the campground, Angelos said. She added that nearly all of the negative comments the park receives are related to its facilities. Visitors want facilities that are in good working order and are clean, but the park needs the funding to address the problems, she said.

A sign outside the River Inn building at Jay Cooke points visitors to a port-a-potty or outhouse as their only restroom options while the water line remains unrepaired. The line was likely damaged due to shifting rocks falling on the line in the nearby canal that sources it, Angelos said. Lokkesmoe said the DNR is considering options now to repair the water line.

Jay Cooke's campground shower-and-bathroom building is more than 50 years old and is "one of the worst" among the DNR's 172 sanitation buildings, Lokkesmoe said. It contains four women's and four men's showers, and is too small to meet the needs of campground visitors. The DNR received funding last year to pay for the design of a replacement for that building, which is expected to be constructed this summer.