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Parks panel mulls criteria for developing parks

NEW ULM — The criteria used to prioritize which neighborhood parks for development was the subject of Monday’s Park and Recreation study session.

The subject of park development has been a topic of discussion in the city. Recently land became available for purchase in the Upper Cottonwood Street/Dacotah West Addition that could be used for a neighborhood park. However, other neighborhoods are underserved by parks. This has led to talks with staff and the commission on how the creation of new parks is prioritized.

Park and Recreation Director Tom Schmitz clarified the focus was on neighborhood parks with neighborhood amenities like a playground, open space, shelter and access.

During the previous work session, the parks commissioners developed a list of criteria that could be considered for prioritizing parks. The list of criteria was divided into objective and subjective. The objective criteria were primary data, such as the distance between parks. Subjective criteria were difficult or impossible to quantify information like socio-economic challenges in neighborhood areas.

After discussing which criteria would be included in the priority matrix, the commission also weighted the criteria’s importance.

Early in the discussion, the commission was uncertain if criteria related to the health and economic status of a community could be obtained.

It was believed New Ulm Medical Center or Public Health could provide some health statistics and the value of neighborhood homes was public information, but there was a question of whether seeking this information was appropriate.

Commissioner Christopher Vorwerk said that especially with socio-economic factors, he did not want to give the impression parks would be installed based on wealth.

“I think our park plats should be equal across the board at far as economic advantage or disadvantage,” Vorwerk said.

Commissioner Leroy Flor agreed. He said “health and economics should not have anything to do with where a park goes. If we are doing that aren’t we stepping over bounds.”

Commissioner Bev Luneburg was also uncertain the commission could measure health challenges accurately in an area.

Commissioner Carisa Buegler understood these concerns but believed the commissioners had a responsibility to help a struggling community. She did not want communities that were able to donate the most money to have the only influence on park development.

“A park would provide added value to the people living [there],” Buegler said. “And just from a community development standpoint, I don’t want that piece to be ignored.”

She also wanted the commission to be aware that an area with a chronic illness is linked with lower income.

Vorwerk suggested subjective criteria like health and economics not be automatically part of the criteria, but be a factor to consider if two parks are tied in the rating. He said the commission was also reluctant to label a neighborhood economically depressed.

Commissioner Laura Evans said she understood why the commission did not want to use health and economics as criteria to avoid being rude but said this is something all cities deal with and quantify.

“It is real information,” she said. Real data was available from community resources such as Public Health to determine health and economic factors. The commission would not need to rely on personal opinion.

The commission decided these subjective criteria should be given less weight in the park criteria matrix.

As a group, the commission discussed and ranked all the criteria with a score of 1 through 10, with 10 as the highest importance.

The commissioners believed land availability, safety and travel distance to the nearest park were the top-ranking criteria. The number of households served by the park and available private donations was the next important.

Future housing, access to utilities and economics were given the lowest rank.

The commission has a tentative plan to conduct a test run-through of the criteria. Schmitz said nothing about the criteria was official yet. He believed they should be tested before being adopted.

Luneburg asked Community Development Director David Schnobrich if previous neighborhood park development went through a similar process.

Schnobrich said the current process was more analytical than past park development. He said past parks were created based on subjective decisions from the City Council or Park and Recreation. The decision was made based on looking at a map seeing a point that had no park. Other park development was spurred by physical development or the creation of new plats.

“The 1858 town plat identified park areas,” Schnobrich said. “For a long time, it wasn’t necessary for the city to purchase parkland because the parks were already dedicated in that document.”

Schmitz said staff would create a formal document with the necessary criteria. The park matrix will be brought back to the next Park and Recreation work session to be scheduled at a later date.

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