Crookston families have a few bones to pick with Parks & Recreation over park conditions and summer programming

Mike Christopherson
mchristopherson@crookstontimes.com
Megan Hanson and her kids, left to right, Bowen, Brody and Maddie Hanson, play on the playground. Megan said she likes to take her kids to parks all over Crookston.

    Trying to take the pulse of some Crookston residents, mostly families with kids, who have been vocal in recent days in complaining about tall grass, weeds, dandelions and thistle growing on City of Crookston property and in various City parks around town, and it seems their initial frustration might have more to do with the City deciding recently to cancel all summer youth and adult Parks & Recreation activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they’re using the condition of City property and parks as an opportunity to vent.

    Some photos of tall grass and dandelions on City property, weeds growing through cracks in the Highland Park tennis courts, and thistle with its sharp little needs growing through wood chips in a couple City park playgrounds where kids play were posted on Facebook last week, and a couple days later people were still voicing their displeasure with the situation. But creeping into the lengthy, spirited thread were complaints about summer Parks & Rec programming being nixed in Crookston, while some other communities have chosen to offer scaled-back and modified summer recreational programming that will be in compliance with social distancing guidelines.

    It’s possible a contingent of people will attend Monday evening’s Crookston City Council meeting to further voice their concerns about both matters. A representative of the group told the Times they have received indications that the City of Crookston, given that the State of Minnesota and Minnesota Department of Health, after the City nixed summer Parks & Rec programs, released a set of guidelines that would allow for some summer recreational activities to take place, might reconsider its previous decision and offer some sort of summer programming.

    The Times reached out to Parks & Recreation Director Scott Riopelle and Interim City Administrator Angel Weasner on Sunday to ask if, indeed, the City is revisiting its recent decision, but hadn’t heard back from either of them by press time Monday.

    As for weeds, long grass, etc. in parks on on City property, Riopelle told the times the City hasn’t sprayed the parks in recent years. Neighborhood parks were sprayed several years ago, he said, but it was very costly. The only park sprayed every year is Highland Park/Complex, recently renamed to Ray Ecklund Complex. It is sprayed for weeds and fertilized, Riopelle said.

    The City is responsible for mowing and maintaining approximately 300 acres of property. That includes the levees, he said. Considering the acreage further, Riopelle said he thinks the 300 figure might be a “little light.”

    In the City of Crookston weekly report from department heads released on June 5, Riopelle noted that Parks & Rec staff are removing and spraying growth coming up through playground equipment in some parks. Some spraying in parks has spread beyond those efforts, he noted, adding that more help is coming to help alleviate this issue.

    The Times visited one park Sunday, Schuster Park, where a bunch of children were playing, and no thistle growing through the wood chips was observed.

Checking in with other area communities

    The Times reached out to officials in several area communities to discuss weeds and spraying, etc., and the status of their summer recreational programs. The Times heard back from representatives from East Grand Forks, Thief River Falls and Red Lake Falls.

    When it comes to summer recreational programming for kids, it’s clear that some area municipalities share facilities and activity coordination with their school districts more than is the case with the City of Crookston and Crookston School District. Last year, the school district transferred ownership of the Community Pool to the City, but other than programs like Safety Town and K-6 Summer Camp that the school district presides over and previously cancelled due to the pandemic, the City Parks & Rec program handles basically everything else that kids and adults do recreation-wise in the summer.

    “We’re a go for summer activities, but they’ll obviously be scaled back,” said Reid Huttunen, City of East Grand Forks parks superintendent.

    The city council there early last week approved an abbreviated summer season that will commence July 6 and wrap up Aug. 13. Fees have been reduced to reflect the abbreviated schedule.

    “There are a million plans to make to fit the Minnesota Department of Health guidelines, but our plan is to run some version of every program, just abbreviated and all in-house,” Huttunen explained. “There will be no travel out of town for any teams. We’ll do the best we can if we’re allowed to play games.”

    In Thief River Falls, again, the city has a Recreation and Campgrounds department, but a private firm, VenuWorks, operates their arenas, and recreation programs are run by private associations, said Mark Borseth, Thief River Falls Public Works director.

    According to the City of Thief River Falls website, the Thief River Falls Baseball Association is working out the details in preparation for some sort of summer Prowler baseball season, and registration forms are also on the website for other youth activities, pending the necessary guidelines being formulated with social distancing in mind.

    In Red Lake Falls it’s more of the same. City Administrator Kathy Schmitz said that the school district there runs summer parks and recreation programming, but the city runs the swimming pool. The fate of summer pool programming is to be discussed by the Red Lake Falls City Council at its Monday, June 8 meeting, Schmitz noted. The school district rents the fields and arena from the city for summer use, and as of now Schmitz said she believes some sort of summer recreational programming will take place.

Spraying

    East Grand Forks sprays for broadleaf weeds in its parks and trail systems and on its levees. Some spraying is done by the Parks Department and some is done by Public Works. In playgrounds, seasonal staff will pick various weeds, but spraying near equipment is not a typical practice, he said.

    The Minnesota side of the Greenway along the Red River adds a massive amount of property for the city to maintain, Huttunen added. Parks and playgrounds add up to around 150 acres, he said, but adding in the Greenway as well as the cemetery, and the acreage mushrooms to approximately 1,400 acres.

    “The Greenway is a huge chunk,” Huttunen said.

    The City of Thief River Falls sprays for weeds in its parks and public properties, Borseth said, and it all adds up to around 200 acres. With Public Works and TRF City Forestry working together, it costs around $6,000 for materials and labor, he said.

    In Red Lake Falls, Schmitz said only the baseball and football field are sprayed. Around 138 acres have to be maintained in all.

By the numbers

    The City of Crookston 2019 Parks & Recreation budget was $1,275,000, Riopelle said. Cuts and cancellations due to the pandemic are saving the 2020 budget around $150,000, he said, but that dollar amount may have to help reduce shortfalls in other areas of the department and other “improvement”-related costs.

    In East Grand Forks, Huttunen said the entire Parks Department 2019 budget was $1.9 million.

    In Thief River Falls, Borseth said the total annual park budget is $470,000, but that doesn’t include arenas or recreational programs.

    In Red Lake Falls, the parks and recreation budget expenses are $356,000. Minus revenue, it’s around $245,500, Schmitz said.

    Approximating the numbers, the populations of both East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls are almost 1,000 more than Crookston. In the last census, Red Lake Falls had a population of 1,427.