Jono Cowgill wrapped up his tenure as Park Board President this month. He took some time for an interview to reflect back on his time in office. He lost his re-election bid to Elizabeth Shaffer in November.
What do you think the legacy of your time in office will be?
Focusing on youth investment. Before our board came into office in 2017, there was a really big expansion of the planning department at the Park Board. There was a lot of focus on investments in the riverfront and infrastructure investments. Those are all well and good, but this board made a pledge to invest in youth – that meant youth programming, that meant infrastructure for youth-serving places in the system, especially our rec centers.
We were successful, especially in the last round of budgeting, in securing a substantial amount of money to just get back to where we were around 2000 or 2002 in Minneapolis in terms of staffing for young people. That's a huge accomplishment. We're going to see the fruits of that work in the coming years, and hopefully this board will stay the course with ramping up that staffing and expanding those programs.
You’ve focused a lot on youth funding and programs at the Park Board. Why was that such a big focus for you, and what’s the program that you’re the most proud of?
Something I spoke about since I got on the board was, let’s look at what portion of the budget, which is now more than 130 million dollars a year, is now going directly to staff or programs for the youth themselves. We went from 14% of the budget going towards those kinds of youth-serving expenditures in 2017 to nearly 20% of the entire budget today. There’s more to do, but that's a good trajectory.
Within that, there are a couple really great programs that we're expanding. One is a newer thing, and it's upgrading the tech labs that we've had in park buildings over the past 15-20 years now. They’re called “Creation Spaces.” They're pretty high-tech spaces in five different Park & Rec Centers across the city. They include staffing and a variety of music production and video production equipment. It's taking spaces where people were honestly just playing video games online and turning them into spaces where they're actually using critical thinking skills to create creative projects. The Superintendent is really excited about this, it’s a huge cornerstone piece that he's been championing, and it's part of that youth investment.
Another thing that’s a continuation of a fantastic program is a partnership with the Concordia Language Villages. That’s a language camp that's run by and for young people in high school. It’s at a variety of park sites around the city. Those are two really great programs.
Beyond that, really reorienting our Teen Teamworks program to be housed within the asset management department – that's a really big change. We’re looking to see if we can maintain the staffing levels because it’s an incredibly popular program and we have way more applicants than we can end up staffing up for year-on-year. There’s always the need to expand that program to give young people jobs doing great work in the community that they grew up in. That's a no-brainer across-the-board. Hopefully we'll see that continue and expand.
Why do you think you lost the election?
I was the leader of the organization at a time when the organization was in the middle of some state and national issues, and I made some difficult decisions with my colleagues. There was a lot of frustration with government, generally, but especially the Park Board, and I was the focal point and the head. People were frustrated on both sides, with how we have a crisis of homelessness and how the board did too much or not enough to support the unhoused in the city.
Beyond that, we’re in a different time. There’s not as much desire to focus on the youth-serving aspect of the job, and instead to focus on safety, which I think is a shame. I think that those things are one in the same. Perhaps I didn't do a good enough job telling the story of how investing in young people and making sure they have positive places to be and positive things to do outside of school is the best way to help address the crisis of youth violence and to combat crime in our city.
You faced a ton of heat for the decisions the Park Board made around giving homeless people a place to sleep during the summer of 2020. Can you explain why you made the decisions you did then, and if you could go back, would you change anything?
It really started when the Park Board was confronted with a group of unhoused people who had been kicked out of the Sheraton Hotel about a week and a half after the murder of George Floyd. They came to Powderhorn Park and immediately one of the Park Police agents gave notice to vacate the folks that were there. We got notice from the state, from the Governor's office, that that was in violation with the current COVID protocol, so we took a step back. The COVID protocol was that you couldn't disrupt encampments due to COVID.
That was the situation that we had. We had a new group of folks coming to Powderhorn that were going to camp there after being kicked out of another space. We had COVID in full swing. Policies for dealing with COVID, like where we were allowing people to be and not be, and where they could congregate or not, were still being developed.
We made the decision that breaking up a large encampment of folks that were being supported by a lot of the same people that had been protesting police brutality over the couple of weeks before that was a really bad idea, and that it was going to result in a confrontation and perhaps violence. Not to mention the fact that continuing to push people from one place to the other while we don't have long-term infrastructure for them to be housed is also not a good idea, especially during the pandemic. So, the Park Board decided to allow people stay, which was really just undergirding what was already policy at the state level.
I still feel good about that decision. I don't think it was popular. I think that the one unintended consequence of that is that we got more people coming to Minneapolis parks because it got a substantial amount of press. That was unexpected. We still have, today, a large number of people that live in our parks, we just don't have it front and center the way it was in the middle of 2020, and we don't have a really large single location encampment.
The longer-term thing that was really terrible to see is that once we provided some support, we did not experience a coordinated effort for expanding and enhancing that support going through the rest of that summer. In some ways, that makes one think well, maybe we shouldn’t have provided any support in the first place, but when I think about the folks that I met especially at Powderhorn and across the city, I really felt like ultimately we did a good thing. We provided temporary space for folks to get on their feet and to start transitioning and finding new housing during a really traumatic time in the city and a really traumatic time given COVID.
There were some successful examples. The encampment that was over by Lake Harriet was really successful in getting a bunch of folks housed. There was a similar situation with the encampment right by the Superintendent's house. It was a struggle, and it was stressful. I think everyone in the city was stressed, and I think our staff was stressed. I was very proud of what our staff did and what our Superintendent did. Our Superintendent lives in the park system and was right there daily with the encampment outside his house.
It was a unique time, but the one thing that I regret from that summer was that we didn't spend a little bit more time planning how to disengage the really large encampment at Powderhorn. it was becoming a real safety issue, it needed to be disbanded, but going in there with police was a disaster to say the least. I wish that we could’ve figured out a better way to do it. We still needed to disband it, but we needed to figure out a better tool, and we still don’t have the tools in our toolbox to connect with the unhoused.
The city’s tree levy is ending. What kind of impact do you think that will have?
We’re not going to be planting as many trees starting this coming year unless the mayor steps in.
Now, more than ever, it's very clear that it's the mayor that needs to fund the gap that we have. This past year, we passed an initial M.O.U. to start a pilot of a carbon offset program in partnership with Green Minneapolis. I think it's worthy to look into whether or not this is a way that we could expand tree planting, not just in Minneapolis but across the metro area. I’m not sure if that’s definitely the way to go in the long term, but it's something that we should look at. It requires about two million dollars of seed money to be brought in. The proposal has been made to the mayor's office and the city to get that funded with ARPA dollars, and unless something has happened in the last couple weeks that I'm not aware of why we still have not seen that get funded.
If it's not funded, we will have a pretty substantial reduction in expanding our tree planting. We will still be able to replace trees, but the amount of tree planting and expansion of tree planting is going to be reduced. We've already lost two positions to help plant more trees from attrition over the last couple of years, so that's critical.
If we don't get that funding this year through the city, we're going to need to see the Park Board go to bat for renewing that tree levy or coming up with a new kind of tree levy because we know that trees are a critical piece of combating climate change. I think everyone agrees, politically, that trees are great and we should have more of them. There's actually a lot of opportunity for us to plant more trees across the city, both on park land and also on private land.
The Park Board needs to play a central role in that. We are the keepers of the trees in this city in a forest, and we need to continue to be on-the-ball to to push that forward and make sure that we're getting the funding necessary to have an expanded tree canopy. Right now, we’re at a little north of 20 percent tree cover in the City of Minneapolis, and we need to get to 35 or 40 percent.
There was some controversy during your tenure about public-private partnerships in the parks department, especially around the new Seven Pools park. How did you view that issue then, and what do you think about public-private park activities moving forward?
It's a reality that's going to continue to be present. There's a purist perception that I think is valid that our public spaces should be fully be and for the public and the people, and that there should not be any private influence on our public spaces. That said, there are a variety of products and services in our parks system that are beloved and are partly due to public-private partnership, the best example being the restaurants.
You're not going to have a Sea Salt, you’re not going to have an Owamni without a public-private partnership. What I would look for is a bit more clarity and consistency with how those partnerships get established. It should not be that the private sector gets to just come forward with whatever idea they want and get the government park system to buy into that idea. Rather, we need to have the Board of Commissioners and the Superintendent develop a clear set of parameters and criteria and vision for what we're going to see as a value in public-private partnerships.
I think there is an opportunity for that with our relationship with the Parks Foundation. I think they get that. But I think we've seen examples in the past few years, and frankly I'm not absolved of being involved with some of these, but something like the Seven Pools, where that was driven by a few people that have the time and energy and resources to get that project going and it's it's far be it for me to say that investing in a park in one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the city if not the state was was the best use of capital dollars at that time. I think that's something that the Park Board needs to look at really seriously.
The other part of this public-private partnership where they should look at really closely is around our naming policies. We've gone back and forth with what exactly our naming policy should be, and whether or not to allow corporate imprint on park space. There are examples, but it's kind of here-and-there.
Right now, we're developing a new park over in Northeast called Graco Park. A lot of folks would say that’s a violation of our naming policy, but it happened due to a confluence of circumstances. There is an opportunity for the new board to think about what makes sense for those kinds of guidelines. Should we allow any corporate imprints on park space, or on a specific part of a park space? These are all things that the people of Minneapolis should be looking at and keeping track of in the coming years.
The Cedar - Isles master plan is working its way through the public process right now. How do you hope it ends up being finalized?
I hope that it does get passed, because it's a regional park space, and there hasn't been a master plan for that space that's actually been passed by the board for multiple generations. The last attempt was in 1997 and it didn't pass. I do hope something gets passed. The system and the board needs to really think about how these regional park spaces are operating as regional park spaces that are welcoming to everybody.
That means that there are going to have to be some tough decisions about different kinds of uses, whether that means installing more restrooms around Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. Believe it or not, I think that might be met with a bit of resistance from some residents because the more nice infrastructure you’re putting in one area, the more it will attract people to that space, and that's a constant battle for some of these more remote areas of the park system.
I'll be looking at that, and I'll be looking at what kind of pathway ends up coming around Cedar Lake. I've seen the proposed alternatives and neither of them propose a pathway directly around the lake. I do think that that's still going to come up in the comments, and there's going to have to be some clear rationale and reasoning for what ends up happening and creating better accessibility around Cedar Lake for all users. One of the last acts of the last board was to pass a resolution that will end the encroachments that the 13 properties have along Cedar Lake with the docks and other treatments when they sell the property. That has an impact on what the Master Plan can consider for that space moving forward. The 13 properties that are next to the beach there currently have improvements, and in the long-term, the goal is to have those be removed [Editor’s note – this refers to the 13 properties that have direct lake access to Cedar Lake, including the public land directly between their properties and the lake, some of which have private structures]. That should be considered by the board when they are looking at what kinds of alternatives need to move forward for the Master Plan.
The final thing that I would look at it really is winter activities around the lakes. That's a perennial issue, but this question of whether or not there should be more activation there is really valid. I think they should take a look at investing a bit more, which is going to mean more activity, and that’s going to be a pretty divisive issue. For example, building a year-round space that can be used as an ice house in the winter time, or if you're going to continue to make temporary improvements instead.
If you had another term, what would you focus on?
I really wanted to see through the youth investments we were able to secure in the most recent budget cycle. I was also excited by some of the racial equity work that was happening across the organization, and was looking at a few different ways of doing public safety in our park system. I was really hoping to see that expand.
Unfortunately, I think the new board is already kind of going the other direction. There were a couple of police positions that were left vacant over the last couple of years that are now I see are getting hired up for instead of expanding our violence prevention team, which was being really effective in this work in connecting with the unhoused in our city and dealing with people that weren’t following our ordinances and guidelines in a different way.
Along those lines, there was an initiative that started with us repealing some outdated, and potentially racist, ordinances and rules, but that work wasn't finished. We still have a lot of ordinances that are misdemeanors that could be reduced to rules. I've seen over the last four years a lot of folks that have been cited for something like a police officer saying they smell marijuana smoke, or cited for being in the park after hours and not knowing that the park is closed after hours. That goes on your record, even if they are just say “oh yeah, I'll leave now” when they're supposed to leave. As a board, there was some of that low-hanging fruit that we weren’t able to get changed during my term and I would’ve loved to continue to focus on that
What should people watching the new park board be sure to focus on?
One of the main things people focus on with the Park Board is how dramatic it is! That was certainly one of the big political issues during the campaign – who is going to lead the board in a way that isn't going to be chaotic, and to keep them out of the spotlight?
Maybe more important is looking at the budget, and looking at where the dollars going, looking at how true the board stays to its equity matrix for determining its capital funding. Looking at where projects are happening in the city – do they line up with areas of concentrated poverty?
Another thing in the short-term that I really hope that people track is that the board, in its last couple of meetings, made all youth programs in areas of concentrated poverty in Minneapolis free. We gave a runway for staff to implement that, starting with the summer programs that begin this March. In those areas of the city, they would be free. That includes Rec Plus programs.
This is in line with some of the initiatives that are being discussed at the state and federal levels around reducing child care burdens for families. The Park Board is the second largest childcare provider in the city of Minneapolis. That's something that I'm really interested to see.
The other thing that I would look at is how we're working to get funding from the infrastructure bill, and how well the board, in partnership with the city and others, is able to work with our legislative delegation to secure some dollars for some really needed rehabilitation. Thinking about all the WPA spaces around the system, to Bde Maka Ska, to the riverfront, there's a lot of crumbling infrastructure. We have an opportunity right now to be advocates, and the funding that the Park Board put into lobbying has often yielded great results. We also have our intergovernmental liaison Pamela Gokemeijer, who is kind of heading up some of the work coordinating federal advocacy. We’ve got to see if that actually yields any fruit.