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Meet Your Next District 4 Park Board Commissioner

Craig Wilson, of the Hill and Lake Press, and David Tinjum, of the Mill City Times, interview Minneapolis Park District 4 Commissioner candidates Jono Cowgill, 29, of the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood (a.k.a., the “Wedge” Neighborhood) and Tom Nordyke, 54, of the Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood about their vision for the future of the Minneapolis Park System. (Please note that each candidate was given the same questions, same amount of time to respond and a total copy limit of 2000 words, which they both met.)

What experience will you bring to the Park Board?

Jono Cowgill – “I am an urban planner who leads comprehensive plans for cities throughout Minnesota. For the past two years I have been a board member for the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association, chairing the Open Spaces Committee. Previous to my planning work, I have led policy-related initiatives for a variety of public and non-profit organizations including the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs and the MN Legislature’s nonpartisan House Research Department. Before that I founded a glass blowing education program for underserved youth in San Francisco, CA. I grew up in Minneapolis, attending Kenwood Elementary, Anwatin Middle, and South High schools. I will bring my professional planning perspective, my lifelong experience in the parks, and my evidence-based progressive values to the Park Board.”

Tom Nordyke – “I served on the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board from 2006-2009, and I was elected as President of the Park Board from 2008-2009.  During my years on the Board and under my leadership as President we were able to bring the Board together after years of acrimony and difficult relationships with senior MPRB staff.  We were able to heal the differences with the staff and to bring unity to the Board around common visions and goals for the Park System. One of my greatest strengths as the MPRB President was my ability to bring Commissioners together around shared goals in spite of what were often very different visions and agendas of the various Commissioners. Some of the successes of my time on the Park Board were:

  • MPRB Comprehensive Plan 2007 – 2020
  • Launched the Minneapolis Parks Foundation
  • Extensive renovations of Lake of the Isles Park and Parkway
  • Repaved Kenwood Parkway
  • Initiated plans to renovate the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center
  • Renovated Parade Field/Stadium and Parkway

Over the years I have also served on many other civic boards including the Minneapolis Planning Commission, the Minneapolis Institute of Art board, the Minneapolis Parks Foundation & chairing the Minneapolis Arts Commission, as well as a number of arts and affordable housing non-profit boards. Professional, my almost 30 years of experience in the unique field of “Affordable Housing and Real Estate Development for the Arts” has given me a good objective outlook of what it takes to turn an initiative from an idea to a finished project.  My understanding of government relations along with historic preservation, and affordable housing financing over the past twenty years has made me a leader in this field. I successfully help the revitalization of a number of cities through historic preservation, economic development and the arts and affordable housing development. As a vanguard in this field, I have spearheaded over 30 arts focused real estate projects with over $1.5 billion in financing across 26 states and Canada. My work demonstrates a history of creating win-win strategies that benefit preservationists, developers and the arts community. I am committed to building creative communities that support and sustain the arts. I began my career in this creative work as Vice President for Artspace, the national leader in the field of developing affordable space that meets the needs of artists, but since 2003 as W+Noordijk, inc. As a small business owner I have provided independent consulting on issues of real estate acquisition, finance, design and marketing.  My clients have included many of the major cities and foundations across the United States. I have worked internationally as well on projects as far flung as the University of Belgrade in Serbia and Gallery Magazine in Guangzhou, China. It’s an exciting job!”

What diversity do you bring to the Park Board?

Tom Nordyke – “I was the first openly gay President of the Minneapolis Park Board. That is something I am proud of and one of the reasons I jumped into this campaign. We are seeing less diversity in this year’s local election cycle than we have in years. Regarding the LGBTQ community, we are looking at less representation in local government than we have seen in a very long time. I believe as a gay man and member of our LGBTQ community I have a unique and diverse voice to bring the Park Board.”

Jono Cowgill – “The diversity I bring comes from wide variety of people and experiences that have shaped me. I am the son of teachers, I grew up in a racially and economically diverse Minneapolis neighborhood where I learned to recognize my privilege early on, and where I have built friendships with people from a variety of identity backgrounds. I have lived in London, Tacoma, Washington D.C. (as a page under Martin Olav Sabo), and San Francisco. I am also a trained urban planner who uses empirical data to inform decisions. I am an old soul who loves Rogers and Hart, but I am also a millennial. I would bring all these influences with me to the Park Board.”

What examples do you have collaborating, working and problem solving with others?

Jono Cowgill – “Currently I work with communities to solve long-term issues ranging from infrastructure planning and bonding initiatives to persistent crime and community disinvestment. I work with city leadership, community members, and business stakeholders to come up with concrete, long-term solutions that have collaborative buy-in. I have done this work in places as far-flung as International Falls. A premier local example of my collaboration has been working with the City of St. Paul, neighborhood development organizations, the University of Minnesota, and citizen leaders to reevaluate the City’s capital investment program with a racial equity lens. That work has been effective in completely transforming the City’s process for allocating capital dollars equitably throughout St Paul.”

Tom Nordyke – “My time on the Park Board and particularly being President was a constant exercise in collaborating, working and problem solving with others. Our work on the Park Dedication Fee and the repaving of Kenwood Parkway both required difficult negotiations with the City, which were eventually successful. Our work on the Lake of the Isles renovation, Parade Field and the Sculpture Garden required work with the City as well as the State Legislature, and again these were all successful. Being able to work with other institutions in a way the not only gets things done, but does so in a way that is a win for the Park Board is at the heart of being an effective Commissioner. It is why I believe that experience really does matter when we look to who will represent us on the Park Board.”

The 20-Year Neighborhood Park Plan (NPP20) is a historic agreement that establishes additional funding to maintain and revitalize neighborhood parks through 2036. Extensive work has been done by the Park Board to ensure that funding is allocated based on racial and economic equity. Do you intend to honor NPP20 and the dollar allocations that have been made based?

Tom Nordyke – “I absolutely intend to honor the NPP20 initiative! It is a well-developed plan with a great deal of community input. It is important to understand that the NPP20 document was developed in partnership with the City of Minneapolis and goes hand-in-hand with the $11 Million dollars a year of funding over the next 20 years. There are a number of candidates for the Park Board that have stated that they will reopen or disregard the NPP20. That is an incredibly irresponsible position to take and would be a disaster for the initiative and it’s funding as well as the MPRB’s relationship with the City.”

Jono Cowgill – “I completely support the historic 20-year neighborhood park plan including the funding allocation framework and look forward to responsibly administering those dollars. I applaud the many community leaders who advocated for this historic agreement.”

What would you specifically change and how it would positively impact racial and economic equity in our community?

Jono Cowgill – “I will not change anything to the NPP20 plan, I will only add that it is important the Park Board is diligent and responsible in how it communicates these important investments to community members. As a commissioner I plan to be a public face that will ensure that all of our neighborhoods are well-informed about the progress of the spending of our NPP20 dollars.”

Tom Nordyke – “The Park Board adopted the NPP20 plan, which includes a racial equity matrix in decision making for resource allocation and also adopted the Racial Equity Action Plan for 2017 – 2018. The Racial Equity Action Plan is in essence a plan for creating a plan. Both of these plans are being implemented right now. They should be monitored to ensure they are having the desired outcomes and if those outcomes are not being achieved the plans should be modified. On the outside chance that it is determined that one or both of these plans is simply not working, then we should look at ending them and starting anew.  There are a number of candidates who have tried to label the MPRB as a racist organization with no concern about racial equity or justice. That is simply not true. The MPRB, like other public institutions has work to do on many fronts. The plans mentioned above are an excellent start to addressing these issues.”

The RiverFirst project is a multi-decade effort to transform 11 miles of once-industrial north Mississippi Riverfront to public parkland, which will effectively complete the Grand Rounds through north and northeast Minneapolis. Do you support the RiverFirst project on the Central Riverfront?

Tom Nordyke – “I do yes. I am honored to be endorsed by the current 4th District Commissioner and current MPRB President Anita Tabb, who has been a huge leader in the Park Board’s work with the RiverFirst initiative. I am planning to be a leader in this initiative as well.”

Jono Cowgill – “Yes, I do. The RiverFirst vision is critical to the sustained vitality of Minneapolis as a regional urban center. It has been a transformative vision that began in 1987 when the first section of what is now James I. Rice parkway first broke ground. We cannot stop now!”

Specifically, do you support the northeast at Hall’s Island and expanding the riverfront access along the river as well as the Upper Harbor Terminal with the Joint City/Park Board venture?

Jono Cowgill – “Ever since I was very young I have wondered why for so long Minneapolis turned its back on the River. Both the Upper Harbor Terminal and Hall’s Island are key aspects of that vision, enhancing access, recreational, and entertainment opportunities for north and northeast residents.”

Tom Nordyke – “I very much support the continued development of the River Front for all residents, particularly Northeast and North Minneapolis. I support the current concept design for Hall’s Island and Scherer Park and will work to refine the plans and move ahead with the project. I also support the Park Board working with the City to redevelop the Upper Harbor Terminal and support join City/Park Board work to make it a reality.”

Crown Hydro is a controversial hydro electricity facility proposed for the Mississippi River front near St. Anthony Falls. Many area residents are concerned about impacts on water flow over the falls and nuisances such as vibrations from a plant while its developers see it as an opportunity to bring more renewable energy to Minneapolis. What is your position on Crown Hydro?

Tom Nordyke – “I do not support the Crown Hydro project. I voted against this project TWICE while on the Park Board and I would vote against it again. The main concern I have is the flow of water over the St. Anthony Falls. In the four years I was on the Board the developers of this project were never able to definitively prove to me that the project would not adversely impact water flow over the Falls or that there would be a remedy if it did. Diminished or non-existent flow over the Falls is simply too much of a risk.”

Jono Cowgill – “I echo Congressman Ellison’s concerns about Crown Hydro given last year’s Environmental Impact Statement. I do not currently believe that Crown Hydro has a compelling reason for their proposed site at St Anthony Falls. The environmental risks and direct conflict with the RiverFirst initiative (Water Works in particular) are enough to greatly outweigh any vague potential energy benefits.”

What is your position on pesticide use in the park system? Is there an appropriate time to use pesticides in the park system or should all pesticides be banned?

Jono Cowgill – “There are a few viable models for severely reducing the amount of pesticides we use in the parks, including Kings County WA, Portland OR, and Toronto. We can realize a more environmentally-friendly and safe park system by responsibly moving towards a severe reduction in pesticide use through the reevaluation of our Integrated Pest Management Plan. It is broadly recognized that our current use of pesticides is unsafe for our already fragile waters, our pets, and our children.”

Tom Nordyke – “If we wish to have the kind of Park System that our community demands in this heavily built urban environment, then we will need to continue the very limited use pesticides for the foreseeable future. There is simply no other way right now to deal with the invasive species that clog our waters and trails and obstruct or views and access to the Lakes and River. It should be noted that the Park Board is extremely judicious about the use of pesticides. I absolutely support the goal of moving toward a pesticide free system. But to do so now would cause damage to our system that our community would not accept.”

What should the role of urban agriculture and community gardens be in the parks?  What is the balance between keeping parkland public and allowing private gardening?

Tom Nordyke – “The Park Board adopted an Urban Agriculture Activity Plan back in 2014. This plan was created with a great deal of community input and was intended to compliment the City of Minneapolis’ efforts including “Homegrown Minneapolis” and the City’s Urban Agriculture Policy Plan. Frankly, the MPRB has been slow to implement this plan and I will make it priority to do so. I think the decision to set aside park property for community based gardening and agriculture is a case-by-case process. I do not see an inclusive and accessible community based garden as ‘private gardening.’”

Jono Cowgill – “There is a wonderful opportunity to support the rollout of the Park Board’s Urban Agriculture Plan. This plan provides the framework for allowing public gardens in parks. These public gardens would be open for all to use and would be more environmentally friendly than mowable land. The key to success for the Urban Agriculture Plan is developing sustainable partnerships with neighborhood organizations, the Minneapolis Public Schools, and recreation leaders to steward gardens effectively.”

The Park Police have been credited with creating a safer Hidden Beach at Cedar Lake. There has been discussion in the past of merging the Park Police with the Minneapolis Police Department to conserve resources. However, the fear is that parks will not be a priority for the City’s police department and that parks will suffer and become less safe. What is your position on the Park Police? What would you like to see change, if anything?

Jono Cowgill – “I support maintaining a strong, separate park police force. The issues that park police face are unique, and having a dedicated force allows for tailored approaches to ensuring our parks are safe. I support broadening the tools that our park enforcement has to successfully keep our parks safe for everyone. I am supportive of mental health training for the force, successfully rolling out the new comprehensive use of body worn cameras, and expanding the role of mental health professionals in helping our mentally-ill neighbors in the parks.”

Tom Nordyke – “The idea of merging the Park Police with the City Police force is pretty much a City idea. I can’t recall a Park Board Commissioner that ever supported that idea, and for good reason. The Park Police can and do have a more proactive approach to policing and it shows. Less than 2% of our City’s violent crime happens in our parks. That is a pretty stunning statistic particularly if you compare that with other metropolitan areas where the parks are the problem, not the exception.”

There is a distinct possibility that green space will be lost to Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT) along the Cedar Lake and Kenilworth Trails unless representatives can work with the Met Council to develop a solution. What is your experience working with agencies like the Met Council? What is your strategy for SWLRT?

Tom Nordyke – “I worked with the Met Council a lot when I was on the Park Board. The Met Council is a funding partner with the MPRB in areas like the Regional Park System, land acquisition funding and other funding streams. I worked with the Met Council and others when I was on the MPRB developing the Metro Green Line and the intense debate about routing the Green Line through the U of M and across the Washington Avenue Bridge. I have also work with the Met Council in my professional life as a developer of affordable housing. The Met Council is a funding partner in affordable housing and in Brownfields cleanup and other environment funding. I have generally had a very good and productive experience in my work with the Met Council. SWLRT is another story however. I do not support the current route selected for the SWLRT, and I never have. Nor do I support the “process” that lead to the selection of the current route. Having said that, the only possibility at this point for halting SWLRT as designed and to change the route is the lawsuit currently in process by The Lakes and Parks Alliance. If that suit is successful then it is a whole new ballgame. If not, then the only thing the Park Board can do is work to mitigate any negative impacts of the SWLRT on the Grand Rounds and our other park assets. So, things pretty much hang on the lawsuit right now.”

Jono Cowgill – “It is very unfortunate that the Met Council’s SWLRT alignment goes through the Kenilworth Corridor. I personally believe it is a bad alignment. Currently the Park Board has a Memorandum of Understanding with the Met Council wherein the Park Board agrees to “facilitate the approval and construction of any LRT project.” It also calls for close coordination between MPRB and the Met Council on final design considerations around the bridges of the Kenilworth Channel. The Final Environmental Impact Statement estimates that the MPRB will lose a total of 0.7 acres of green space for a trail realignment in Bryn Mawr Meadows Park and for modifications to the rail alignments along the Kenilworth Corridor. We cannot afford to lose any more green space due to poor project management or revised designs. In this vein, I will closely monitor this proposed loss of green space and work with the SPO and Met Council to mitigate these losses. I have worked with Met Council staff on housing and transportation related work and as Commissioner will develop strong relationships with the current Council while advocating for my constituents and the Park Board. Within this project new issues arise consistently, including the lawsuit brought by the Lakes and Parks Alliance, the rebidding of the construction contract, and unstable federal matching funds. Should the MOU be revisited by the Park Board, I would listen to my constituents - especially those most affected by line construction - to make an informed decision on any and all agreement parameters.”

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About Craig Wilson, MLA, MURP, LEED AP

Craig is the Principal and Owner of Sustology, a third-party independent sustainability advisory firm that brings solutions to businesses, governmental agencies and non-profits.

Craig focuses on initiatives that enhance the environment while providing tangible bottom-line results.

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