Community Engagement at the Aitkin County Fair
One thing was abundantly clear from the City of Aitkin’s booth at the county fair: People love Aitkin City Park.
“The response at the fair was amazing,” said Amanda Lowe, Aitkin Park Committee member. “So many people took the time to really analyze the three concepts and were very intentional when voting for their favorite.”
Fairgoers overwhelmingly voted in support of Park Concept #3, which keeps most of the current amenities where they are while adding some new features. Many of the current amenities such as the playground and the pavilion are slated for upgrades while fairgoers showed support for some new facilities.
Aitkin County Public Health Educator and Registered Dietitian Hannah Colby believes the response from the fair shows that the Park Committee is on the right track. “The amount of interest from our community was outstanding as this tells the committee a vibrant park with updates and new amenities is what our community wishes to see with the existing layout,” Colby said. “We had over 200 individuals (young to seniors) vote on which map they preferred as their favorite.”
One of the Aitkin Park Committee’s goals in approaching the upgrades is to take care of the current amenities that see a lot of use. This could include maintaining or upgrading those things that people have come to expect and enjoy most at the park, such as the little league field, hockey rink, playground, pavilion, kayak launch, and skate park. While it is easy to dream of incredible new features, the committee agreed that the current parts of the park that citizens have grown to love should not become a casualty of new amenities.
That being said, the most sought-after new amenity for fairgoers was a splash pad. Concept #3 places this just south of the Ice Rink. A splash pad provides a fun way for children (and adults) to cool off in the summer. The City of Brainerd installed a splash pad at Memorial Park thanks to years of fundraising and donations. One of the biggest variables is the cost. Equipment and installation are the initial costs, but paying for the water will have a continuous price tag. All of these factors will be considered when determining if this feature is right for the park.
Some new amenities that are sure to please users but won’t break the bank were also high on the priority list. Fairgoers overwhelmingly approved expanding the park across the Ripple River and onto the Tibbetts property, which was acquired with Legacy Grant Money from the state of Minnesota. These new areas may include a dog park where pets can roam a fenced area unleashed, a pump track for bikes, and an educational space for classes. Opening up the Tibbetts property and connecting it to the rest of the park would also require a new bridge across the river.
Some other new amenities that fairgoers were excited to imagine include an outdoor amphitheater with a performance stage and a warming house to complement the new ice rink and provide a place to put on and store skates during those cold winter months. A proposal for funding the warming house is currently stalled at the state level with other projects from communities across the state, but is high on the priority list.
Anyone who missed the chance to provide their input at the fair can still have their voices heard. The concept maps are on display at Aitkin Public Library and new feedback will be added to what has already been collected. The information that was displayed at the fair and is currently at the library can also be viewed at https://www.aitkincommunitypark.org/ online.
The Park Committee has been working with Confluence, a company that helps communities plan and redesign parks. Funding for working with Confluence has come from grants from BRIC (Building Resilient Inclusive Communities) and SHIP (Statewide Health Improvement Partnership) and have been arranged by Colby. Confluence has been helpful in gathering ideas and input from the community.
“Confluence has been a great company to work with by providing lots of vision and ideas for space,” Lowe said. “Their expertise in design work has really helped create a unique vision for us.”
Colby plans to organize forums with community groups to gather their thoughts on park priorities and enlist their aid to make this truly a community park. These will include many players who can help make this a reality, including the Minnesota DNR, Aitkin County River & Trails Committee, local businesses, civic organizations, the pickleball association, and many others.
Ultimately, the committee is looking to provide the best possible amenities to the park’s visitors. That comes with its own set of challenges that will require involvement from many people.
“I think it's going to take a community to complete this project,” Lowe said. “We need to continue to look for grants to assist with funding the project. It's also going to be important to continue to get community members to support the project whether it's their time, talent, or financial support.”