City Council approves supporting $300K DNR grant application for inclusive park, commits to $350K in city funds for project

Published 6:22 pm Sunday, March 6, 2022

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The Albert Lea City Council on Saturday approved a resolution supporting a $300,000 grant application to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for the new inclusive playground at Edgewater Park.

As part of the application, the council also committed city support of $350,000 for the park.

Estimates for the park are now over $1.26 million, including costs of site preparation, playground equipment, pour-and-play surfacing and an adjacent parking lot and sidewalk.

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The action came at a special meeting at the close of the council’s annual retreat at the Albert Lea fire station.

Albert Lea Director of Community Engagement and Enrichment Cathy Malakowsky said the playground has been a grassroots effort between parents of special needs children, as well as special education teachers, therapists and recreation staff. An inclusive playground is a space that allows everyone, regardless of ability, a chance to play. They are designed not only for individuals with physical disabilities, but also those with autism and other sensory disorders. 

Malakowsky said the group took the idea to the Albert Lea Parks and Recreation Advisory Board in October and then to the council in November and has since been making presentations at service clubs and to the Albert Lea school board. It is also applying for grants and seeking donations from businesses, Malakowsky said.

In the last month, the project received $10,000 in funding through the Noon Kiwanis Club, and the group secured a contractor that will provide some in-kind services. It also now has a website, and several fundraisers are being planned.

Malakowsky said the project serves a need in the community as 700 students in District 241 alone receive special education services. Not only would the playground benefit these children, it would also benefit their families, who could socialize with other families. It also provides opportunity for future programming and events at the park, which will be turning 100 years old this summer.

“For 100 years, our city has been developing this park and adding amenities, and to me this is just a natural progression of what we’ve done with that park space,” she said. “I think it’s also the next level for us as a Blue Zones community, and this is just saying, we are welcoming everybody, no matter what their physical ability is.”

Third Ward Councilor Jason Howland asked if the $350,000 from the city could come from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act money.

Albert Lea City Manager Ian Rigg said those funds are meant to relieve negative impacts due to COVID-19 and must be spent in a way that provides provisions of service to constituents. Some ineligible expenses include tax reductions, rainy day funds, debt service or judgments, settlements and extraordinary deposits and pension funds. Capital improvements are also restricted except for broadband and clean water and drinking water-eligible projects.

Eligible expenses include community improvements, though those have to be in areas noted as severely impacted. This project would not qualify as that, Rigg said. However, he said it could potentially go under a separate area tied to revenue loss.

Some of the other things he recommended the city use its American Rescue Plan Act funds on included assisting in remodeling of Albert Lea Housing and Redevelopment Authority houses, rehabilitating or demolishing tax forfeiture properties, stabilizing 310 S. Broadway, demolishing and filing other buildings in disrepair on the 300 block of South Broadway and providing affordable housing rehab and construction grant money.

Rigg said the city also has $2.4 million in excess reserve from its general fund beyond what is typically recommended, and an additional $350,000 is expected to be added to that.

Some of the projects he recommended to be considered for that funding included blight control, an environmental site assessment of the Blazing Star Landing, adding money toward the building maintenance fund, setting aside money for leverage for the rail trail, constructing downtown restrooms and way-finding kiosks, and constructing the inclusive park. Even with those projects, there would still be additional money leftover from the excess reserve, he said.

The council also needs to consider moving some of the excess reserves over to reduce the city’s debt levy.

First Ward Councilor Rich Murray said he thinks it is important to use some of the money to make investments into the community but some of it also needs to be used to reduce debt. He said the council needed to have good discussions in the coming days about allocating the funds.

Finance Director Kristie Brutlag said at this point the city doesn’t have to define which fund the $350,000 for the playground would come from for the grant but it needs to show its commitment.

The council will determine this at a later time, as well as how it will use the American Rescue Plan Act funds and the excess reserve funds.

Albert Lea Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr. said he looked at the playground as an economic development tool that provides another quality of life opportunity for residents looking to move to the community, particularly as more people are working from home and can move wherever they want.

“It creates another piece of the puzzle that makes Albert Lea a place people want to be,” Rasmussen said.

He said it also invites people to the community.

“It makes a very bold statement everyone is welcome here,” Malakowsky said.

Howland said he loves the location next to the pavilion.

“To be using this land that used to be a dump and have now this great, brand-new inclusive playground there — I think it’s fantastic,” Howland said.

The council voted unanimously on the action.

The city will find out this summer if it is approved for the grant.

The committee will be responsible for raising the remainder of the funds needed to make the project a reality.