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Questions linger about Commons’ funding plan

Updated: May 9, 2016 - 3:47 pm

City Council members raised several pointed questions about the future Downtown East Commons park during a committee meeting Wednesday, including how much public money is being tapped for the project and how many days the Vikings will use the park for fan festivities.

The questions follow the revelation that the city won’t be reimbursed approximately $2 million for design work on the park as originally proposed. The City Council’s Development and Regulatory Services Committee approved a design concept for the park and agreements with Greening Minneapolis and Ryan Cos. on Aug. 25 to move ahead with work on the 4.2-acre park, which included affirming that $2 million in design and project management costs authorized by the city won’t be replenished from future fundraising dollars.

The full Council will vote on the committee’s actions Friday.

Council Vice President Elizabeth Glidden (Ward 8) questioned why the Council’s Ways & Means Committee didn’t review the $2 million expenditure.

Council members Lisa Bender (Ward 10) and Cam Gordon (Ward 2) also asked Miles Mercer, business development lead for the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development Department, about the city’s future funding commitments for the project and agreements with the Vikings over how many days the team gets use of the park.

Gordon said it appears the city is investing more in the project while the Vikings will be allowed to use the park for more days than city leaders originally envisioned for the Commons.

“This deal just keeps getting worse, worse and worse,” he said, adding it seems the city has an opportunity to renegotiate before making more commitments.

Bender also raised concerns about the budget for the park.

“I am uncomfortable with the level of uncertainty about the total amount of public investment here,” she said.

Mercer said the user agreement for the park allows the Vikings to use it for 60 days a year, which includes fan events on game days plus use of the park the day before and after game days for site prep and teardown time. The Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) can use the eastern block of the park for 40 days a year.

Under the original term sheet on the Downtown East project approved by the Council in December 2013, the MSFA was granted exclusive use of the eastern park block for up to 40 days and the Vikings were granted exclusive use of the entire park for home games and an additional 10 days per year.

The two-block Commons park will be bordered by Park Avenue, 4th and 5th streets and a residential building on 5th Avenue South. It will also be bisected by Portland Avenue.

As for the $2 million in city funds for design and project management costs, John Stiles, chief of staff for Mayor Betsy Hodges, said funders and potential donors for the park have said they wanted to see a “gesture” from the city showing its commitment to the project as a way to generate additional dollars from the private sector.

Matt Lindstrom, a spokesman for the city, said the city’s $2 million contribution is “largely funded from bond proceeds with department budgets accounting for the rest.”

The city has already issued $18.8 million in bonding to acquire land for the park and pay for site preparation work, including demolishing the Star Tribune building. The city has also acquired $1.5 million in grants for the project.

Hodges and Pat Ryan of Ryan Cos. co-chair a fundraising committee for the park. They announced Aug. 13 that they have raised $7 million for the project — about a third of the $22 million goal for the project.

San Francisco-based Hargreaves Associates is the designer on the project and unveiled a design concept in June showing plans for a great lawn, a pavilion and water plaza.

Funding sources for the park’s ongoing operating costs — estimated at $1.25 million a year — remain uncertain, Mercer said, noting it could come from a combination of sources, including city funding, private fundraising led by the nonprofit conservancy Green Minneapolis or special assessments on neighboring properties.

City Council Member Jacob Frey (Ward 3), who has been involved planning work for the park, sounded more optimistic than others and said he’s hopeful there’s still time to negotiate to ensure that the park is accessible to the public as possible. There’s talk of having some tailgating activities on the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s parking lot.

“I’m not saying this is 100 percent figured out right now, because it’s not, but we’re on the way,” he said.

Under terms of an agreement with the Park Board, the City of Minneapolis will transfer the title of the park property to the Park Board for $1 after the city acquires the parcels from Ryan. The Park Board will then lease the park property to the city. There would be no rent for the lease. The agreement is for 30 years with options to extend it no longer than 50 years.

The park is expected to be built by July 1, 2016.