Regional parks remain top metro-area attraction

ThreeRiversParkLogoThree Rivers Parks totals 9 million visitors

Regional parks continue their reign as a top metro destination.

According to the Metropolitan Council, the number of annual visits to regional parks grew to nearly 46 million in 2012, an increase of four percent over 2011 and 38 percent since 2004. By comparison, the Mall of America generates about 40 million visitors a year.

The most frequented regional parks are in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The five most-visited regional parks in 2012, respectively, were:  Minneapolis Chain of Lakes Regional Park, 5.4 million visits; Como Regional Park, Zoo & Conservatory (St. Paul), 4.5 million visits; Mississippi Gorge Regional Park (Minneapolis & St. Paul), 2.6 million visits; Central Mississippi Riverfront Regional Park (Minneapolis. 1.8 million visits; and Phalen-Keller Regional Park (St. Paul/Ramsey Co.), 1.6 million visits.

In the northwest metro, the Three Rivers Parks remained a very attractive source, with Elm Creek Park Reserve (Maple Grove, Champlin and Dayton) topping the list with 911,000 total visits estimated in 2012 (12th overall destination in the metro); the Baker Park Reserve in Medina had just above 500,000 visitors; Fish Lake in Maple Grove had 305,000 visitors; Eagle Lake in Maple Grove had 71,000 visitors; and Crow-Hassan Park in Rogers had 36,500. There were about 9,157,000 total visitors to Three Rivers Parks.

Overall, 25 percent of visits to the regional park system were visits to trails; 75 percent were visits to regional parks, park reserves and special recreation features.

Over half of the visits, 54 percent, took place in regional parks and trails in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Park visits increased most significantly in Carver County, where regional park visits increased by more than 31 percent from the previous year.

Most visits, 41 percent, occur during summer months. Fall and spring use is next highest, with 22 percent of visits during spring and fall days.

“Metro area parks are nationally renowned for their beauty, size and features, as evidenced by the top national ranking of Minneapolis parks from the Trust for Public Land,” said Metropolitan Council Chair Susan Haigh. “Our parks are not only assets we treasure, but a tangible benefit of regional planning, helping to promote an attractive and livable region.”

The regional network of parks and trails was first envisioned by Minneapolis Parks Superintendent Theodore Wirth in the 1930s, building upon work begun by 19th century landscape architect Horace Cleveland in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Decades later, in 1974, the Minnesota Legislature fashioned the regional system by authorizing the Metropolitan Council to prepare a regional park system plan that designated 31,000 acres of existing city and county parks as regional parks. Lawmakers also authorized the Council to issue up to $40 million in bonds for grants to regional park agencies for land acquisition and park development.

Today, the Twin Cities boasts a regional park system that includes nearly 55,000 acres of parks and park reserves, 308 miles of trails, and seven special recreation features, including, for example, the popular Como Zoo and Conservatory.

The park system is planned and partially financed by the Metropolitan Council and its Parks and Open Space Commission. Since 1974, Council and state funds totaling $566 million have been appropriated to buy land and develop new and existing parks and trails. Of this amount, $76.5 million is the result of the constitutional Parks and Trails Legacy Amendment approved in 2008 to supplement traditional funding sources to support parks and trails of regional and statewide significance.

The Legislature has also appropriated $154 million since 1985 to fund about 10 percent of the annual operations and maintenance of the system.

The actual ownership and operation of regional parks and trails is in the hands of 10 regional park implementing agencies, including Anoka County Parks, City of Bloomington Parks, Carver County Parks, Dakota County Parks, Three Rivers Park District (Hennepin and Scott Counties), Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Ramsey County Parks and Recreation, City of St. Paul Parks and Recreation, Scott County and Washington County Parks.