Mayor R.T. Rybak and his challenger, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, both say they support better athletic fields for Nicollet Island's DeLaSalle High School.
The issue surfaced during an April 14 mayoral debate sponsored by the Minneapolis Central Labor Union Council. After the debate, both hedged when pressed on whether the field has to be on the island proper, as the school prefers, or simply near to the island, as some island residents have suggested.
DeLaSalle has an athletic field on the island, but it is not big enough to support bleachers and to play home games. School leaders have pushed to expand its current facility onto neighboring Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board land. The plan includes a road closure. It has sparked heated exchanges between school officials and Nicollet Island residents.
Mayoral debate moderator Nick Coleman asked the candidates where they stood on "the Nicollet Island dispute." McLaughlin, in a relatively brief response, said the city made a commitment in the early 1980s to allow DeLaSalle to build a playing field.
"What we need to do is de-escalate some of the rhetoric around this, get around the table and solve the problem," McLaughlin said. "I think that DeLaSalle deserves a playing field. I think we ought to negotiate our way through that and get it done."
Rybak gave an extended answer that included not only the DeLaSalle field, but also the Mississippi River from the future Whitewater Park to the redevelopment of the Upper Harbor Terminal.
The mayor said he thought DeLaSalle deserved a playing field, but the way school officials made the proposal, "was a little clumsy." He said once the issue "exploded," he went to DeLaSalle leaders and said the idea was right, "but we have to think about some other alternatives."
Rybak suggested the school put the new field in front of the school, replacing an existing parking lot, he said. It didn't fit, "so we are going back to Plan B," he said.
Rybak's answer included reference to other stakeholders. "This riverfront is a special place, too, and it belongs to everybody," he said. "We will find a solution for DeLaSalle, but our vision of the river should be bigger and about lots of folks."
In a postdebate interview, Rybak said he didn't have any specifics for "Plan B." DeLaSalle's field didn't necessarily have to be on the island, he said. It could be nearby.
One of the big question marks in the Nicollet Island debate is the Park Board's obligation to offer DeLaSalle its land. The island's current land use resulted from a series of complex negotiations in the 1970s and 1980s.
The 1983 agreement McLaughlin referenced is between the Park Board and Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA). It included language about building a joint-use DeLaSalle/Park Board facility on park property. DeLaSalle is not a party to that agreement.
The 1983 agreement said the Park Board shall "use its best efforts to construct upon property adjacent to the DeLaSalle Property an outdoor neighborhood recreational and athletic facility which, at a minimum, shall consist of a full- (regulation) size football field and no less than two full- (regulation) size tennis courts."
In a postdebate interview, McLaughlin did not give a yes-or-no answer as to whether the DeLaSalle fields should be on the island or could be nearby.
"I am not the convener of that dialogue at this point," he said. "It is time to have a real discussion, a real dialogue."
The Park Board bought the land sought by DeLaSalle with approximately $1 million from the Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission. Commission staff says converting the land into an athletic facility is inappropriate and would need review and approval by the Metropolitan Council.
Park Board staff is waiting for a specific proposalfrom DeLaSalle.