Limited Parks & Rec summer program in Crookston possible

Mike Christopherson
Ashley Melsa, left, and Jessica Brownsell address the Crookston City Council Monday night.

Although it would begin after the Fourth of July and would only last about a month, and although it might only be for a couple hours a day and involve only in-house skill-building in various sports and other activities, it’s possible that the City of Crookston’s Parks and Recreation Department will, in fact, try to offer some sort of summer youth programming amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a few weeks after announcing that all summer programming was cancelled.

During a lengthy discussion at Monday night’s Crookston City Council Ways & Means Committee meeting, Parks & Rec Director Scott Riopelle said that some planning for limited summer programming with social distancing in mind has commenced, and the Crookston Park Board will discuss it when they next meet on Monday, June 15.

A group of local parents with children who play in City parks and would typically be involved in various summer Parks & Recreation activities has been particularly vocal of late in voicing their displeasure with not only the cancellation of summer activities, when other area towns are offering modified programs, but also the condition of some of the parks in which their kids play, i.e. weeds, tall grass and thistle growing near playground equipment.

Monday, the group was represented by moms Ashley Melsa and Jessica Brownsell, who voiced their concerns and offered their ideas near the end of the meeting, when Ward 5 Council Member Joe Kresl brought up concerns he’s been hearing about weeds in parks and on highly-visible City property, and the lack of organized summer recreational activities for kids, including his own.

On the weeds front, Riopelle said his crew is making progress and the situation is improving. He reminded everyone that, with the pandemic resulting in smaller seasonal staff this summer, Parks & Recreation staff like Parks & Rec Supervisor Scott Butt and Administrative Assistant Andrea Prudhomme, with the vast majority of their summer duties typically involving youth activities, are working in the Park Shop and are helping with mowing, plant-watering and related duties.

With the council hoping to hire a new city administrator later this summer – finalists coming to town for interviews would be taken on community tours – and with the City requiring property owners along “gateway corridors” to keep their properties looking good, some council members said it’s only right and fair that the City keep its property looking good as well. That means that spraying for various weeds is probably going to be necessary, even though Riopelle has said, and he reiterated Monday, that doing so is expensive. 

Ward 2 Council Member Steve Erickson said the council needs to identify the scope of what it wants to accomplish. “Do we prioritize the parks and do 10 of them really well, or try all of them and not be able to do much at all?” he said.

Summer programs

If a theme emerged during Melsa and Brownsell’s time at the council chambers podium, it was that they want the City to focus on things it can do, and not just throw in the towel because it can’t do anything. Melsa mentioned other area communities that are doing their best to offer modified summer activities this year.

“They’re saying, ‘How can we…’ rather than ‘We’re not, or we can’t,” she said.

While that notion was received positively, Riopelle reiterated that the reason the decision to nix summer programs was made in May, prior to the State of Minnesota relaxing some social distancing requirements and defining what summer programs may be possible in a modified mode, was to give the dozens of people normally hired by the City for summer Parks & Rec jobs time to find other employment opportunities. “We didn’t want to leave them hanging for two months (while the City tried to figure out what to do),” Riopelle said.

While not as many as normal, he said a big part of making a limited summer program possible will be the City’s ability to hire some people for a job that is tentatively slated to begin on July 6 and end on Aug. 7. “At this point, we’d have to try to find enough staffing, and backup staffing,” Riopelle said. “But we will work on that type of stuff. We have to develop a plan.”

Brownselll, new to the Crookston area and an employee at RiverView Health, said that a major issue for her and Melsa and many other families is that with no summer programs like Club Kid, finding child care – already perhaps Crookston’s most pressing need – is a major struggle.

Melsa mentioned Crookston Sports Center several times, too. In a normal spring, “off-season” youth hockey tournaments would have been held at CSC perhaps all the way into June. But with the pandemic, CSC has been a non-factor. Melsa said it needs to be a more-utilized community asset and should have a sheet of ice right now. She said she’s taking her son to Grand Forks to skate and is paying hundreds of dollars to do so. She said it might be possible to generate revenue from ice rentals or sponsorships, etc.

Riopelle noted that it costs around $5,000 a week to maintain a sheet of ice in the hockey/skating off-season. Under more normal circumstances, the Crookston Blue Line Club would have foot that bill this spring.

After the meeting, Melsa told the Times that she understands costs are always going to be a major consideration at CSC. “But we have to dig into the potential of that facility,” she said.

Both Melsa and Brownsell noted that they work in the health care field, and they understand the challenges COVID-19 presents. “We’re not saying put 75 little kids on a soccer field, but maybe a few kids on a tennis court,” Melsa said. “Maybe have a limited signup, with hand sanitizer, and kids bring their own water bottles. We might not ever go back to the way it was, this could be a long-term thing. So let’s adjust and make the changes now.”

The council will revisit the matter after the Park Board meeting next week.

“Let’s justify what can work, what won’t, and go from there,” Erickson said.

Note: Interim City Administrator Angel Weasner noted that the Crookston Community Pool, per state guidelines, will be allowed to open as of June 10 at a 50% capacity. But before that happens, she said a plan needs to be finalized so it’s done properly.