North Country Health Services is considering giving more land than required to the city of Bemidji.
NCHS will deed to the city of Bemidji 4.3 acres for the creation of a new city park. The parkland dedication is required because of the expansion of Neilson Place.
But there also is a chance that NCHS could give the city 15 acres, which would cover all parkland dedication requirements for future expansion.
But no more than 4.3 acres will be given to Bemidji unless the city can demonstrate that it can finance the development of the land into a usable park, according to Dr. Mark Dwyer, who serves on the NCHS board of trustees.
"There will be no more allocation of land until (NCHS) receives a plan from the city showing what will be put in there and some sense of a strong assurance that the funds will be there," Dwyer said.
Dwyer was among 15 people who attended the Parks and Trails Commission meeting Tuesday to discuss the potential of a new city park along 30th Street Northwest between Delton and Ridgeway avenues.
Whether the city receives the now-required 4.3 acres or the full 15 acres, Bemidji does plan to develop the land into a neighborhood park, said Parks and Recreation Director Marcia Larson.
"There is a need for a park here," Larson said, noting that the park was identified as a need in the city's 2001 Park Plan.
Suggestions for what could be placed in Ridgeway Park included Carrington Field, a baseball field that formerly was located in Bemidji City Park. Carrington Field was not included in the new plans for City Park, which is now undergoing a complete renovation.
The NCHS board is split, NCHS representatives said, on whether the proposed park is appropriate for a baseball stadium.
Craig Boyer, vice president of finance for NCHS, said the board does not want to see a baseball field developed and then have the city not have funds available to develop the remainder of the park.
The city already has committed $350,000 toward relocating Carrington Field, although a location has yet to be named.
Dwyer said that while he, himself, would be in favor of a baseball field, other NCHS board members were concerned about giving land away.
"Land has a lot of value," he said.
Other ideas for the park included walking and biking trails, a basketball court, tennis courts and playground structures.
The location of the park could serve nearby apartment residents and also homeowners in the Vista North development.
Dr. Ted Will, a former NCHS board member, said he believes the park should provide outlets for low-income children in the neighborhood.
That area has a high crime rate, Will said, and the children and teenagers need to be given options other than watching TV.
He described a previous effort that spanned from 2001 to 2003 by the Bemidji Noon Rotary Club that featured the installation of a softball field and aimed to decrease vandalism in the neighborhood.
The neighborhood improvement program included weekly meetings, picnics, building of outdoor recreational facilities, and a summer recreational program, according to the Rotary's Web site. After two years the results were a 33 percent decrease in police calls and the area was designated a Drug Free Zone. Vandalism was substantially decreased.
But since that time, the crime in the area again is increasing, Will said.
AmeriCorps came and hosted baseball games and other activities, but that lasted one year, Will said. Once the planned activities ceased, the kids just stopped coming.
"They just wouldn't go out on their own," he said.
Ideally, then, Will explained, he would like to see open basketball courts and soccer fields - not league-programmed fields.
"You're talking about a neighborhood," he said.
John Ovsak, the president of the Vista North Townhome Association, said Vista North residents are concerned that there would not be a buffer between the new park and their homes.
Ovsak said he was not opposed to a park - "I think it's a win-win situation in having a park over there" - but said Vista North residents would like some division between the park and their yards.
Currently, Vista North is built off of 30th Street along an undeveloped stretch of Delton Avenue North.
Perhaps Delton itself could serve as a buffer, as City Engineer/Public Works Director Craig Gray suggested.
Gray said the city would probably take a look at developing that unused portion of Delton into a trail before the city would agree to permanently vacate the street right-of-way.
Jerry Downs, a Parks and Trails commissioner and Bemidji City Council member, said the city has consistently supported NCHS efforts.
He urged the NCHS board to consider long-term benefits for the community.
"I think we all need to come together as partners," Downs said.
Larson said the city already has spent money on preliminary sketches for NCHS to show how the park might develop.
She didn't think the Parks and Trails Commission would be in favor of spending more money to produce even more sketches without a commitment from NCHS.
"It's chasing our tails a little bit," she said.
Dwyer said sketches are good to see, but stressed that the NCHS board wants to see a financial plan for developing the park.
"If you don't have the money to put a playground in, it's not going to happen," he said.
Larson also pointed out that if the city will receive 4.3 acres now knowing it will, at some point in the future, receive more land once NCHS expands further, it might not be prudent to develop the 4 acres at this time.
"We'll have to consider whether it's worth designing for 4.3 acres and spending that money or just waiting," she said.
Will pointed out the NCHS is a community health organization.
"I think the hospital has a certain responsibility to the youth, too," he said.
Jeff Keckeisen with Bemidji Youth Baseball said he understood the concerns of the NCHS board.
"For so long in this community, we have not given back to the kids of our community," he said, noting that the city has eliminated a baseball field and doesn't have nice tennis courts. "There are few decent amenities for our kids."
The city has money remaining from its half-cent sales tax, but those dollars were prioritized to ensure a renovation for City Park and its next project: redevelopment of Library Park and the Lake Bemidji waterfront.
Parks and Trails Commission member Mary Auger said that while the committee knew there was a possibility for Ridgeway Park, it was not an official part of the city's park systems.
"You can't budget for something if you don't know what it is," Auger said.
In addition to the half-cent sales tax funds, Larson noted that the city does have a fund for parkland dedication fees.
The fund currently contains $63,400 and was created about 2 1/2 years ago, said Ron Eischens, the city's finance director. No dollars have ever been spent from the fund.
But it is hard to measure an average or expected revenue for that fund because it depends on the amount and type of development that occurs in the city's limits each year, Eischens said.
Also, parks and recreation needs are included in the city's five-year Capital Improvement Plan. Those budgeted items include maintenance-related equipment such as lawnmowers.
Could tennis be the solution?
After about an hour of discussion, Paul Swartwood suggested a partnership.
Swartwood, the president of the Bemidji Area Tennis Association, said the BATA has been searching for a location that would house indoor tennis courts.
If the city were to make available the needed land, BATA would pay for the building, Swartwood said.
Dwyer especially was intrigued by the idea. He said some NCHS board members support the expansion of indoor opportunities during winter months.
"I think there is great interested on the board for hearing about an enclosed tennis facility," Dwyer said.
Swartwood said the BATA is looking at about 4 acres that would be able to have indoor courts, locker rooms and an observation deck.
Currently, the BATA rents the CVS Fitness facility that has two indoor courts, but would like to have more in the future, Swartwood said.
"We are only considering facilities that could house four courts," he said.
Kevin Waldhausen, a Parks and Trails commissioner and Bemidji City Council member, said he could see tennis being a good fit for park users.
"I don't know any age group that can't play tennis," he said.
Will pointed out that indoor tennis would not be accessible for low-income people who would be required to pay to use the facility.
But Swartwood said there are some indoor facilities in the Twin Cities, for instance, that are used heavily in the winter months and then made available for free use during the summer.
Waldhausen also noted that a building might be a good buffer for the Vista North residents.
But Ovsak said he did not find the idea of looking at the back of a building very appealing.
"I don't think that's very attractive to anybody," he said.