Surrender, or Else

"The list of problems is so astronomical," says protest leader Marsha Brekke,"we can no longer work with the board."
Craig Lassig

Afternoons were quiet around Corcoran Park in South Minneapolis last week. Kids who a month ago mobbed the swing sets were off at school. The parking lot was empty except for a maintenance truck. One bored park staffer kept an eye on the calm between naps at the main building's front desk. You'd never guess there's a revolt under way here.

The opening salvo was fired just last month, when folks from the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization called for the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board to turn over management of the park, or else. Marsha Brekke, who's leading the charge, says the coup started shaping up three years ago, when the park's basketball courts turned into what her group calls gang-and-drug central. After filing repeated complaints with the park board, residents circulated a petition and took their gripes directly to their City Council member, who solved the problem by arranging for the concrete to be converted into a tennis court.

Since then, Brekke and her neighbors have authored a laundry list of grievances: gang graffiti on walls; broken glass in the sandbox; items purchased with Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds (a TV and VCR, sports equipment) that have disappeared; kids' programs, promised and paid for by the park board, that were later canceled without explanation; a blaze in the main park building last winter that was ruled an arson fire by inspectors. The complaint pile reached critical mass in July, when a park employee was arrested after Minneapolis and Park Police bought drugs from him while he was on duty at Corcoran Park. With that incident, Brekke says, her group concluded that "the list of problems is so astronomical, we can no longer work with the park board."

In early August the insurrection began in earnest. The group fired off a letter to the park board, whose nine elected members oversee the city's parks and rec department, its 170 park properties, and a nearly $50-million budget. In it, they cited the city's "nuisance property" ordinance (which typically applies to hot-spot rental properties) and asked that control of the one-block park be handed over to the neighborhood--the first time, according to all parties involved in the quarrel, such a demand has ever been lodged in Minneapolis. Approval of the request would have been unprecedented. The park board declined.

Undeterred, Corcoran residents last week mailed off a second letter, this one insisting that the board write up a formal contract, with the neighborhood group assigned as manager of the park. Deadline: September 30. The dispatch calls for the city to pay out to the group what it currently budgets to the parks and rec department for Corcoran Park. No word yet on the board's next move.

Jeff Wells, a field manager for the recreation division, is sympathetic to the neighborhood's position and agrees that "they have some legitimate concerns." He chalks up the park's troubles to the high turnover rate in the on-site recreation director's position over the past five years. He responded to the August letter with a list of actions the department has already taken to fix problems at the park--routine maintenance, safety checks, and so on. As for the demand that the board turn over the reins, Wells suggests that might require approval by the state Legislature--a long shot by anyone's measure. In short, he concludes, "I don't think the board has any interest in turning over their jurisdiction."

Walt Dziedzic, a former City Council member and current park board member, says he doesn't know of any city ordinance that allows a self-appointed band of city residents to supersede the board's authority. Beyond the fine print on the books, he goes on, "It's just a bad idea. It would be like someone coming in to a council meeting and saying, 'I don't like how you're running the government, so I'm taking over.'"

Even so, what may have been contained as a small turf tiff has turned into a contagion: Activists in other neighborhoods have been busy consulting with Corcoran vets about the chance of wresting oversight of their own parks from the board. Deb Nelson, of the Victory Neighborhood Association, says her group's been fighting with the board to replace the 22-year-old playground equipment in Victory Park ever since 1996, to no avail. Diane Hofstede, co-chair of the St. Anthony West Neighborhood Association, is ready to go before the Metropolitan Council to stop a park board plan to install soccer fields near Boom Island Park in Northeast Minneapolis against the near-unanimous wishes of area residents. Folks from Cedar-Isles and Harrison are watching the front lines to see if they, too, might stand a chance of taking over their neighborhood green spaces.

If the board mails back another no-go to Corcoran's rebels this month, Marsha Brekke says, "My first step will be to organize a large and angry protest at the park." Next step? They won't leak specifics, but Brekke and her troops say they've already shored up a small war chest should the battle move from the field to the courtroom.

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