Building Greater Minnesota’s System of Regional Parks and Trails
by Joe Czapiewski, AICP
System Plan Coordinator, GMRPTC
Republished from the April-June issue of Planning Minnesota
What would you do if you had to create a new state agency from scratch?
That’s essentially what the 13 governor-appointed members of the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission (GMRPTC) set out to do in October 2013. Armed with enabling legislation, the possibility of distributing a portion of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment funding, and a brand-new strategic plan, the volunteer Commission got to work improving outdoor recreation across Greater Minnesota.
Notice I said the “possibility” of distributing Legacy Amendment funding. While the sales tax funding was available quickly, the brand-new Commission wasn’t ready to manage it. The Commission is one leg of a three-legged stool also consisting of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Metropolitan Council’s Regional Parks and Natural Resources Department.
Each agency is responsible for managing a portion of the Legacy Amendment’s sales tax revenue dedicated to parks and trails. As a new entity, the Commission had to prove not only the viability of its concept, but the capacity of the organization as well. Until then, distribution and management of its portion of funding was in the hands of the DNR. Let’s take a look at how the Commission tackled this challenge.
Who, How and Why
The Commission’s role is to “undertake system planning and provide recommendations to the legislature for grants funded by the parks and trails fund to counties and cities outside of the seven-county metropolitan area for parks and trails of regional significance (Mn Statute 85.536).” There’s a lot packed in there, so let’s break down three critical parts.
The first part is “who”. The GMRPTC is targeted toward Greater Minnesota’s public (city and county) parks and trails of regional significance. What does that mean? Well, the Commission’s Strategic Plan contains criteria for facilities that rise to the level of designation as a part of the regional system. If you meet the criteria, you’re in!
How do you know if you meet the criteria? The Strategic Plan is a policy plan guiding the development of the overall regional system. It lays out the application process, the criteria, and the requirements for submitting a qualified Unit Master Plan. The Commission has never been shy about holding a high standard for the facilities that want to be a part of the system. Achieving designation is the most significant part of the overall process, receiving the most scrutiny.
Once you are designated a part of the system, applying for funding is fairly straightforward. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t standards, criteria, and competition, but the applicant pool is fairly small and your chances of success at this point are much better than many other statewide programs. Funding applications are also relatively simple, compared to Master Plan creation and evaluation. In the end, receiving funding is the carrot to encourage good planning!
Planning is Key
System planning from scratch was the challenge, and the opportunity, for the Commission. To build a system worthy of funding, we needed to recruit cities and counties with park and trail concepts that were worthy of the title “regionally significant” and receiving state funds. There were also no funds to directly support Unit Master Plan development by cities and counties, which fostered creativity in how the Commission supported applicants.
It would have been easy to designate a bunch of low hanging fruit, in the form of several well-known and developed parks and trails, and call it good. Instead, the Commission knew it could leverage its process and funds to raise the bar for park and trail planning across Greater Minnesota. The key to doing that was to link system designation to creation of a “qualified” Master Plan. Planning requirements encourage professional standards, linkage between facility concepts and public demand, and a certain level of planning for construction costs, maintenance, and operations. It also allowed the Commission to evaluate unbuilt concepts, not just existing facilities that had already been successful acquiring resources.
Outside of a few major cities and counties in Greater Minnesota, most local jurisdictions had never done this kind of park planning work. Few of them had dedicated recreation staff, funding for planning, or experience. How could we ensure equity and cost effectiveness across the state while quickly building a quality system?
The answer was to use technology and a local presence (built relatively cheaply) to educate and support all potential applicants. Here are a few of the tools we used:
Working with People
- The Commission created six districts, initially convening a District Planning Committee (DPC) made up of interested locals in each. This helped the Commission to understand the unique landscape and needs of each region of the state. The DPC’s also helped to spread the word about what the Commission was trying to accomplish. As the system matures, the Commission continues to look for ways to improve public engagement at the state, regional and local levels.
- A multi-step designation process helps guide locals to better decision making. By requiring only a simplified application as a first step, a city or county would better understand its strengths and weaknesses prior to completing a full Master Plan. If they are not a match for the program, they can adjust their vision and try again or pursue other funding opportunities. It also saves them the significant expense of creating a Unit Master Plan if regional designation was not a fit.
- Consistent and professional evaluation for all applications is provided by a single statewide Evaluation Team (ETeam), mostly made up of experienced outdoor recreation professionals. This ensures that the same high standards are applied equally statewide while allowing for regional differences and flexibility in the criteria so a variety of facility designs and options can meet the needs identified by local public engagement.
- Continuing education is provided by annual District-level workshops, or at least was until pandemic protocols were put in place. The Commission also maintains a robust and growing toolbox for applicants, including video and written tutorials, content guides, and other tools. These steps, combined with personal coaching by Commission staff (Executive Director and System Plan Coordinator), are critical for helping applicants put their best foot forward and maximize their chances of success.
- The Commission’s website hosts a robust Data Management System (DMS). It’s where applicants start their online Designation Application, the first step in the process. If the application ranks highly, they qualify to move on to the Master Plan step without having to re-enter any of that information into the Master Plan – the system takes care of that action.
- Master Plans are also created entirely in the DMS. This was done for a couple of reasons. A key one is to help guide emerging applicants to complete all of the required components of the plan at a fairly professional standard. For instance, applicants complete a regional context analysis using narrative and attaching appropriate maps and other supportive documents in a designated section of the plan. If it isn’t completed to specification, it can be sent back to the applicant for improvements for easy updates.
- Using an online Master Plan portal, which we believe is the first of its kind, also allows for strong team collaboration. The planning lead organizer can sit down with a mixed committee of volunteers, staff and consultants and assign various components to those who can do them best (and most cost-effectively). For instance, a volunteer group can lead public engagement and then enter their results in that section, while a consultant Landscape Architect puts together the final design and components in another section. The County Engineer can then enter cost estimates and phasing for the entire concept. Finally, there is an export tool that prints out the entire plan in a publishable format, negating the need and cost of a graphic designer.
We also like to point out that the Master Plan portal in the DMS is free and open for everyone at www.gmrptcommission.org/applications.html. Even if you don’t plan to apply for designation, feel free to ask your planner to complete the Master Plan in the portal. It can help ensure a higher standard of development and reduce production expenses.
- The Funding Application is also completed online once a facility is regionally designated. It has all of the traditional questions, requirements, and design attachments you’d expect. This app also lets the applicant tie specific parts of the application to the relevant component of the online Master Plan, allowing for an enriched story about how this particular project supports the overall concept. It also flows seamlessly with the DNR funding application process – the DNR manages the actual funding contracts on behalf of the Commission, so this was an important step.
- Evaluations are also completed right in the DMS. Having it available online allows the ETeam, the District Planning Committees or other local reviewers, and the Commission to conduct their relevant part of the process, whether scoring, commenting, or designating, on their own time. Their comments can then be compiled and provided to the applicant for feedback.
Success to Date
While this system isn’t perfect, the Commission has found success in achieving its goals for park and trail planning. There are currently 62 facilities in the regional system, built from hundreds of applicants in all corners of the state. The Strategic Plan continues to evolve – a new version will be released this summer that streamlines criteria, evolves the Commission’s public engagement process and further raises the bar for Unit Master Plans. We have learned that more work is needed in the areas of park programming, marketing, and long-term maintenance and operations planning, so updated standards and education will reflect that.
The Commission also achieved its goal of managing its own funding selection process as of 2015. That’s only two years from building a system from scratch to overseeing the investment of approximately $9,000,000 per year. We have been fortunate to have great partners at the DNR and Metropolitan Council Parks Department who support the Commission’s work and take our place at the table with them seriously. Together, we are building a fantastic system of parks and trails for all Minnesotans and visitors to enjoy!
To learn more about our application, system, and organization, visit the Commission’s website at www.gmrptcommission.org. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter (@gmrptc) and Instagram (@greaterminnesota) for news updates and explorations of the great parks and trails across Greater Minnesota!