City Council Approves $300,000 DNR Inclusive Park Grant Application, Pledges $350,000 in City Funds for Project – Albert Lea Tribune

The Albert Lea City Council on Saturday approved a resolution supporting a $300,000 grant application to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for the new inclusive playground at Edgewater Park.

As part of the application, the council also committed $350,000 in municipal support for the park.

Estimates for the park now total over $1.26 million, including the costs of site preparation, playground equipment, poured and play flooring and parking and from an adjacent sidewalk.

The action took place at a special meeting at the close of the annual council retreat at the Albert Lea Fire Station.

Albert Lea, director of community engagement and enrichment, Cathy Malakowsky, said the playground was a grassroots effort between parents of children with special needs, as well as special education teachers, therapists and recreation staff. An inclusive playground is a space that allows everyone, regardless of ability, to play. They are designed not only for people with physical disabilities, but also for people with autism and other sensory disabilities.

Malakowsky said the group presented the idea to the Albert Lea Parks and Recreation Advisory Board in October, then to the board in November and has since made presentations to service clubs and the Albert Lea School Board. It also applies for grants and seeks corporate donations, Malakowsky said.

In the past month, the project received $10,000 in funding through the Noon Kiwanis Club, and the group secured a contractor who will provide in-kind services. He also now has a website and several fundraisers are planned.

Malakowsky said the project fills a need in the community, as 700 students in District 241 alone receive special education services. Not only would the playground benefit these children, but it would also benefit their families, who could socialize with other families. It also provides the opportunity for future programming and events at the park, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary this summer.

“For 100 years, our city has been developing this park and adding amenities, and to me, that’s just a natural progression from what we’ve done with this park space,” she said. “I think it’s also the next level for us as a Blue Zones community, and it just means that we welcome everyone, regardless of their physical ability.”

Third Ward Councilman Jason Howland asked if the city’s $350,000 could come from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act money.

Albert Lea City Manager Ian Rigg said these funds are intended to mitigate negative impacts due to COVID-19 and must be spent in a way that provides services to constituents. Some ineligible expenses include tax cuts, rainy day funds, debt service or judgments, extraordinary settlements and deposits, and pension funds. Capital improvements are also limited, except for eligible broadband and drinking water and potable water projects.

Eligible expenses include community improvements, although these must be in areas rated as severely impacted. This project wouldn’t qualify as that, Rigg said. However, he said this could potentially fall under a separate area related to lost revenue.

Some of the other things he recommended the city use its American Rescue Plan Act funds included help remodel homes from the Albert Lea Housing and Redevelopment Authority, rehabilitate or demolish properties in tax forfeiture, stabilization of 310 S. Broadway, demolition and deposition of other buildings in disrepair. on the 300 block of South Broadway and providing affordable housing rehabilitation and construction grants.

Rigg said the city also has $2.4 million in excess reserve from its general fund beyond what is generally recommended, and another $350,000 should be added to that.

Some of the projects he recommended to consider for this funding included blight control, an environmental assessment of the Blazing Star Landing site, adding money to the building maintenance fund, setting aside money for leverage for the rail trail, building downtown restrooms and lanes- finding kiosks and building the inclusive park. Even with these projects, there would still be extra money left over from the excess reserve, he said.

The council should also consider moving some of the excess reserves to reduce the city’s debt drawdown.

First Ward Councilor Rich Murray said he thought it was important to use some of the money to invest in the community, but some should also be used to pay down debt. He said the council should have good discussions in the coming days on the allocation of funds.

Finance director Kristie Brutlag said at this point the city doesn’t have to define what fund the $350,000 for the playground will come from for the grant, but it does need to show its commitment.

The board will determine this later, as well as how it will use American Rescue Plan Act funds and excess reserve funds.

Albert Lea Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr. said he sees the playground as an economic development tool that provides another quality of life opportunity for residents looking to relocate to the community, especially more and more people are working from home and can travel wherever they want.

“It creates another piece of the puzzle that makes Albert Lea a place people want to be,” Rasmussen said.

He said he also invites people to the community.

“It makes a very bold statement, everyone is welcome here,” Malakowsky said.

Howland said he liked the location next to the pavilion.

“To use this land that used to be a dump and now have this brand new inclusive playground there – I think that’s fantastic,” Howland said.

The board voted unanimously on the action.

The city will know this summer if it is approved for the grant.

The committee will be responsible for raising the remaining funds needed to make the project a reality.

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