• Jono Cowgill
  • Tom Nordyke

1. Introduction:

Please share a little about yourself to help voters get to know you.

Jono Cowgill
I am the DFL and Labor endorsed District 4 candidate. Professionally I am an urban planner who leads comprehensive planning processes for cities around Minnesota. I have a degree in urban planning from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, I attended South High, and I grew up in Whittier and CARAG. I’m running for Park Board because I believe we need responsive, energetic, forward-thinking representation on our Park Board. As a Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Board Member and Open Spaces Committee chair, I’ve witnessed the importance of engaging our entire community in stewarding our parks. We need everyone to ensure our parks are safe, healthy, and clean-today and for generations to come.

Tom Nordyke
I moved to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota, were I graduated with a History degree. I currently live in the CIDNA neighborhood with my partner Tom and dog Turbo. I served on the Park Board from 2006-2009, and as President from 2008-2009. Under my leadership we were able to bring the Board together after years of acrimony and difficult relationships with senior MPRB staff. One of my greatest strengths as the MPRB President was my ability to bring Commissioners together around shared goals in spite of what are often very different visions and agendas of the various Commissioners.

2. NPP2020 funding agreement

The Neighborhood Parks Plan 2020 (NPP2020) is a historic agreement between the MPRB and the City of Minneapolis bringing $11M annually to maintain, repair and replace neighborhood park facilities. A comprehensive equity matrix will be used to allocate the funds in order to help address racial and economic equity across all 160 neighborhood parks. As a commissioner, would you support the current agreement and methodology for allocation of the funds?

Jono Cowgill
Yes, I will support the NPP2020 agreement in full. I know these infrastructure upgrades are critical to the future health of our community. I would work with staff to ensure the funds are responsibly managed and that the public is well-appraised of how these key dollars are being invested in our parks.

Tom Nordyke
NPP2020 is an extremely important agreement between the City and the Park Board. I support the agreement and the methodology behind it and will work hard to support and implement the NPP2020 if elected.

3. Equity-based criteria for prioritizing investments

Few would dispute that historical inequities and opportunity gaps persist in America and Minneapolis today. What role, if any, do you think that the MPRB should play in combatting these inequities? What are the pros and cons of MPRB’s equity-based matrix assuring equitable improvement of neighborhood parks as the 20-year funding plan is implemented? As a commissioner, what actions will you support that will actively improve equity in the Minneapolis Park system?

Jono Cowgill
The MPRB has played a laudable role in combating inequities through its equity matrices and focus on access. The Park Board has the responsibility to continue to improve its role in this important work. Improvement means continuous evaluation of data on park investments, use, and opportunity.

The MPRB equity-based matrix for administering the 20-year park funding plan is in many ways historical. The Park Board should be lauded for its work on this matrix. Instead of uneven rehabilitation schedules, this matrix creates a clear weighting system that takes into account areas of poverty and areas of minority concentrations. If there was a clear “con” about the matrix, it is the fact that it has led to confusion for some of my neighbors in district 4, partly due to the natural desire to have one’s adjacent park issue addressed first, and partly due to the complexity of the matrix which includes 7 weighting categories.

A few initial, concrete ways MPRB can act on equity:

-Responsibly implement the NPP 2020 plan, which special focus on public awareness of this important work.

-Implement and fund the urban agriculture plan to ensure that all areas of our city have greater access to locally grown fruits and vegetables. Use neighborhood partnerships.

-Direct staff to explore the viability of attaching enhanced Disadvantaged Business Enterprise preference weight to all park board contracting processes.

-Continue to improve the Park Board’s policing approach. Invest in mental health practitioners, pilot restorative conferencing models.

-Invest in local park programming, including Teen Teamworks and Rec Plus childcare.

-Clearly state online and elsewhere that the Minneapolis park system is a place of sanctuary for all community members, no matter their documentation status.

Tom Nordyke
A new report by “24/7 Wall Street” ranked Minnesota 2nd worst in the US for Racial Equality. That’s a real problem and the Park Board can be a real part of the solution. Over the past 12 years in particular the MPRB has made serious progress in addressing this issue within its own organization, which has culminated in the Racial Equity Action Plan adopted in 2017. As part of this effort we need to:

  1. Implement and monitor the Racial Equity Plan 2017-2018 making sure it creates progress toward the goal of racial equity. This two-year plan is an internal document that should result in a multi-year, external plan for further addressing this issue
  2. Continue to address funding disparity in traditionally underserved neighborhood parks. I support the use on the Board’s adopted equity based matrix for funding parks.
  3. Work with the park board staff to resolve issues of cultural bias in our neighborhood parks’ recreation planning and programming and within the institution itself. This relates to the currently approved Racial Equity Plan and its implementation.

What role does the Board have in these discussions about equity? I think an important role. While the Board has worked on issues of racial equity, resource disparity and diversity, it has not done a good job of “connecting the dots” between those issues and a history/legacy of discrimination.

I think the Park Board needs to “connect those dots” and commit to viewing our future decision-making in part through the lens of racial equity and inclusion.

4. Commitment to the RiverFirst vision

While the Mississippi Riverfront is lined with parkland and public spaces through the Central Riverfront and Lower Gorge, North and Northeast Minneapolis have been cut off from and by the River because of the limited public access in the upper riverfront area. As a commissioner, how would you approach the community developed RiverFirst vision for transforming this segment of the river with new parks and trails as amenities to accessible jobs and homes in this area? What are your approaches to ensuring that nearby neighborhoods fully benefit from its development?

Jono Cowgill
I support the work of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, and as commissioner would use the capacity of the Park Board to facilitate community buy-in and build philanthropic coalitions to reach equity goals.

I would ensure that local neighborhoods fully benefit by investing in park programming that was equitably invested in our most historically underserved neighborhoods. That would include enhanced programming to get community members to use the river on a regular basis, from kayaking and fishing to biking and bird-watching.

Access is about ensuring that communities have pathways and means to get to the places in parks that they want to go. It also means providing programming and infrastructure that people of a variety of backgrounds will use.

Tom Nordyke
I support the RiverFirst initiative 100%! I look forward to assuming a leadership role in this vision from outgoing 4th District Commissioner Anita Tabb, whose endorsement I am honored to have. I think that nearby neighborhoods will very much benefit from this initiative. One concern will be to ensure that the increased access to quality parks does not result in the “gentrification” of those neighborhoods that have been traditionally underserved.

5. Role of innovative public/private partnerships in the Mpls park system

Due to ever-reducing public funding and a need for specialized expertise, there has been a trend over the past fifteen years of the Park Board leveraging public-private partnerships to better serve the public. These partnerships include in-park eateries like Sea Salt and Sand Castle, the Fred Wells Tennis Center, the Walker Sculpture Garden, Mintahoe Catering, and most recently, the redevelopment of Theodore Wirth Park through a partnership with the Loppet Foundation. With the redevelopment of the upper-riverfront, new park spaces through Parkland Dedication Ordinance requirements, and potential opportunities through the Urban Agriculture Activity Plan there are opportunities for more public-private partnerships.

What are your views on these public-private partnerships? What roles do public partnerships play in activating and funding existing and future park operations? How is public interest protected, and how is community engaged?

Jono Cowgill
Since the Franklin Coop Creamery began underwriting recreation programs in the late 1930’s, there has been a role for public-private partnerships in the parks. I am supportive of public-private partnerships, especially partnerships that operate at local and grassroots levels. I am particularly excited about the prospect of partnerships with neighborhood organizations, non-profits, and schools to activate the Urban Agriculture Activity Plan. I also think there is a key role for larger philanthropy in guiding major infrastructure and programming opportunities in our parks. The work of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation on River First is a fantastic example of guiding philanthropic dollars towards a transformative, equity based vision for the Mississippi.

Partnerships can play an enhanced role in developing community participation in our parks. I am a proponent of exploring the role of a business development director with private sector experience who can help attract low-cost entry point vendor opportunities in our parks.

Public interest is protected in any partnership arrangement by ensuring contracts that protect union labor, residence needs and that adhere to the vision and values of the park board. Community engagement should be driven by the Park Board’s community engagement plan.

Tom Nordyke
When I was first on the Park Board as President we were working to advance public private partnerships as a way to enhance the park experience for users and deal with increased demand in the face of fewer resources. We opened Tin Fish restaurant and launched the “Foundation for Minneapolis Parks” which is now the Minneapolis Parks Foundation. I addition, I was instrumental in the early phase of renovating the Minneapolis in partnership with the Walker, another great public/private partnership! Since then, I am pleased to say, we has seen the successful growth of the public/private strategy in so many areas that the Park Board serves.

I absolutely support continued public/private partnerships along these lines and those mentioned in the question. While the new resources available with the City /Park Board partnership outlined in the NPP2020 plan are fantastic, the Park Board will continue to face funding challenges and should welcome partnerships that can help address the resource gap. Of course the Board needs to look at all opportunities and ensure that they do not violate the public interest or trust and in line with the documents developed with extensive community input and engagement that guide the Board – The Comprehensive Plan and NPP2020.

6. Strategies to addresses climate sustainability and improving park ecosystem

With growing impacts of climate change, managing the park eco-system has become more and more important over the past several years. As a commissioner, how would you work with staff to establish environmental priorities for parkland. Do you have any specific climate change/environmental priorities that you would promote beyond those outlined in the Ecological System Plan?

Jono Cowgill
First, we need to actually complete and pass an Ecological Systems Plan. The plan has stopped and started a few times, and I would make it a priority to work with staff in establishing environmental priorities through swift and thoughtful administration of this planning process. The key environmental priorities I would like to champion include:

-Revisiting our Integrated Pest Management Plan to identify bold pesticide reduction opportunities.

-Addressing the newfound concern of zebra mussels in Lake Harriet, and continuing to educate the public about how they can help combat invasive species.

-Incorporating tree trenches, carbon sequestration technology, and other innovative techniques into our Ecological Systems plan.

-Continuing the innovative work of rooftop solar throughout viable park board property.

Tom Nordyke
As the Park Board and the community continue to evolve and work on the Ecological System Plan it will become clearer what the MPRB can do to address the growing impacts of climate change and the degree that it can do such things. So, I would like to finish that process before talking about setting priorities beyond those outlined in the Plan. I will say that I think the greatest opportunity for the Commissioners is to use the “Bully Pulpit” of the Board as a way to promote and address strategies in our own parks and in our larger environment to combat actual climate change, but also the idea that climate change is a false narrative.

7. RecQuest and programming

How well do you think the MPRB meets the needs and interests of our diverse and changing community regarding sports and other youth programming? If you think it’s out of balance, how would you propose to make it more equitable? What is the role of a park commissioner vs. staff in this regard?

Jono Cowgill
I think the Park Board has done a laudable job of providing youth and recreation programming, but could improve in a few ways.

-Coordinating with the Minneapolis Public Schools around middle school sports to retain and develop players, while keeping large numbers participating in leagues. Commissioners can lead this in conversations with the School Board around a coordinated middle school league.

-Ending any ID requirements for sports sign up. This can be a directive to staff.

-Providing more leeway for front line park staff to implement and transform programming. Spearheading park-by-park budgets and participatory budgeting (a board policy action) would be the first step in moving towards more flexible programming options that respond to neighborhood needs.

Tom Nordyke
I think the MPRB does a decent job of meeting the needs and interests of the diverse system users. BUT – it could do a better job and I can think of a number of instances where they have clearly not been ahead of the game. In particular the Board has been too slow to address the communities desire for things like skate parks, Lacrosse or even Pickleball.

RecQuest should have a strong and positive impact by letting the Commissioners and staff gain a better feel for what the real needs and interests are in our changing community. I think one strategy we will see coming out of the RecQuest work is focusing on creating facilities and fields that can function for a number of different recreational uses.

It is the Commissioners’ job to define what RecQuest will mean to the MPRB’s plan regarding sports and other youth programming and the staff’s responsibility to implement that plan. It should be noted that RecQuest isn’t just about youth sports and programming. People recreate for life these days and the MPRB needs to take multi-generational recreation into account when balancing it’s priorities as well.

8. Vision – Top 3 priorities for next 4 years for district / citywide not being addressed

For the past five years the Trust for Public Land has determined that Minneapolis has the best park system in the nation. Do you agree with this assessment? By what criteria do you hope the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board is measured in the next four years and what steps do you see necessary to ensure that the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board scores highly within those areas? What are your top priorities for the next four years?

Jono Cowgill
I love our park system and think it is wonderful. I also believe we can do better in ensuring it serves – and is served by – everyone in this city. Some additional criteria that I think should be added to evaluating the success of our parks system:

-Proportion of park funding that goes to recreation programming. To achieve higher scores in these areas, we need to reevaluate our priorities and invest in park programming that supports our most vulnerable neighbors.

-Proportion of contract funding that goes to DBE firms and businesses of owned by women and people of color. This is a simple metric to track. A racial equity priority system or enhanced DBE preferencing system are a few ways the Park Board could put its money where its mouth is on equity.

Tom Nordyke
I am so proud of the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board’s designation as the nation’s number one urban park system by the Trust for Public Land. I do agree with the assessment, keeping in mind that it is based on a scoring system developed by the Trust for Public Land that the MPRB does not control. I doubt that it would happen, but I’d hate to see the MPRB chasing that scoring system as opposed to sticking to the many good and developed plans that we have discussed above. My measure of success moving forward really would be the successful implementation for these plans and monitoring them and adjusting as needed to achieve our goals. While I love being “number one!” there are other great park systems on our heels and we should expect that we won’t ALWAYS be number one all the time.

My priorities for District 4 will be:

-Continuing the RiveFirst Initiative and the Downtown Service Area Master Plan.

-Finish the renovations and upgrades to Loring Park including paths, tennis courts, lighting and Berger Fountain.

-Work on the Bassett Creek restoration in the Harrison and Bryn Mawr Neighborhoods.

-Monitor the SWLRT and work to mitigate any negative impacts on the Grand Rounds parks.

9. Balancing Priorities

Our evolving and growing community has a series of needs to be addressed, including affordable housing, connected and affordable multi-modal transportation system, strong employment base, quality parks and public realm, equity and achievement gaps. What is the role of MPRB in these issues, how do the issues interrelate, and as Commissioner, how would you prioritize and balance them in your work?

Jono Cowgill
I’ll answer this as best I can in 250 words. People need good incomes and quality housing to live decent lives. They also need to be part of healthy communities that look out for and care for each other. Our park system is a civic bastion where a variety of opportunities are offered that help ease financial and social burdens of residents: childcare, recreation opportunities, safe spaces to play, access to educational and social service resources, and social connections. The park board can and does play a role in creating healthier communities by providing some of these resources at little or no cost. We can do better by prioritizing creative investment in programs that serve our most vulnerable neighbors: the homeless, immigrant communities, low wealth families, and minorities. I will prioritize these investments over shiny new development projects because I believe – as Park Board Commissioner Alfred Pillsbury did – that government investing in the needs of all our citizens is as vital as any other function of government.

Tom Nordyke
The Park Board, as with all public institutions, has a role in confronting those issues and the challenges they present to our City and State. The simplest answer is that the Park Board needs to be a positive and proactive partner in working with the City, County and State as well as private and non-profit partners, even in areas that don’t seem directly impacted by the MPRB – like affordable housing. I am confident in my ability as a Commissioner to be that kind of proactive and positive partner, because I have been doing exactly that for decades. I have worked for 30 years in the fields of affordable housing and the art as a senior Vice President of Artspace Project and later as COO of Aeon. I have served on the Park Board as its President and serves on the Minneapolis Planning Commission, the Board of the MIA, Chaired the City’s Arts Commission and on the Board of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, to name some of the many leadership roles I have played in our community. I have the experience and a proven record of work and leadership to continue fighting to address these issue and create a better Park Board, City and community.