Residents show park lots of love

Lake Elmo Park Reserve crowds force county to look at future

The Lake Elmo Park Reserve is a victim of its own success.

A facility designed in 1987 for 325,000 now counts more than 600,000 visitors annually. The park reserve’s popular swimming pond built for 600 to 800 users now sees 1,000 to 1,200 people on busy summer days.

“Our Lake Elmo Park Reserve extremely, extremely popular in the summer,” said Public Works Director Don Theisen.

“People love the pond and keep coming year after year,” added John Elholm, county Parks Department director.

Theisen and Elholm both said the increase in park reserve visitors stresses facilities and operations. Theisen noted that some facilities at the 25-year-old park cannot handle current crowds. Some swimming pond visitors must park in grassy areas and park staff spends much of its time on busy days directing traffic.

Theisen and Elholm presented a draft park reserve “visioning plan” to address issues at the park to the Board of Commissioners at a Tuesday workshop.

“The number one issue we have to address is the customer experience relative to safety,” Theisen said.

“Some issues identified are related to roads, parking and guest issues,” Elholm added.
Those issues include limited parking, small, non-ADA-compliant restrooms, cramped concession area with limited selections, cramped lifeguard room and not enough picnic tables to handle families visiting to the pond.

Elholm said maintenance issues include heavy restroom use that prohibits staff from cleaning and garbage disposal.

“The biggest issue is the restroom. I was there the day after the Fourth of July cleaning up and it was just inhumane,” Theisen added.

Among the park plan proposals is renovating and relocating parking lots, creating a new, single entrance to the swimming pond and renovating the restroom and concession building to provide better restrooms, more staff and storage space and more picnic areas.

Theisen estimated the improvements would cost more than $4 million.

“This won’t be a one-time project. This will be phased in,” he said.

The study said the improvements could be eligible for state “Parks and Trails” Legacy funds, other state funds, Metropolitan Council funds and county bonds. Other revenue options include increasing the park reserve’s daily fee, having a weekend-holiday fee, sell wristbands for the pond or a levy.

At least two commissioners had reservations about increasing park fee, especially an additional pond fee.

“I think it would not be a good idea to have a fee for the water pond. If you pay your fee, you should enjoy all the park,” said Commissioner Autumn Lehrke.

“I would prefer an option that had another water feature. Let them pay their fee and have a good experience,” added Commissioner Gary Kriesel.

One thing the park reserve will have this season is daily security by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Bill Hutton said one full-time deputy and WCSO reserve deputies would be assigned at the park reserve.

“The reserves have no enforcement action. They’re the folks who are our eyes and ears,” Hutton said.

The sheriff added that he, his chief deputy and other commanders all patrolled the park reserve at times last season and are aware of the crowd issues.

“I was there on the Fourth of July weekend. It was an interesting experience,” Hutton said.

Theisen said the next steps are to finalize the report, prepare an analysis for staff funding options based on the County Board’s direction for 2014 budget talks and incorporate improvements into the 2014-2019 capital improvement plan.

But one commissioner urged officials to address the park reserve’s restroom issues.
“I think the biggest need we have is bringing sanitary sewer out there. That’s a Third World situation out there and we’re better than that,” said Commissioner Ted Bearth.