It Takes A City

With its beautiful scenery and in proximity to many lakes, trails, and rivers, Bemidji, Minn.—also known as the “City as a Park”—was seeking ways to enhance its existing system. In 2011, the city and residents demonstrated their commitment by passing a half-cent sales-tax referendum, up to $9 million, with all resulting revenue dedicated to park and trail improvements.

City Park was considered to be one of the most critical redevelopment park projects in the region. An antiquated 80-acre park adjacent to the Bemidji Middle School and neighborhoods, City Park was built partially over a landfill and was in critical need of updates, repairs, and restorations. While the existing park included amenities such as the Neilson Reise Ice Arena and local curling club, softball fields, baseball field, lighted ski trail, hockey rink, and 9-hole disc-golf course, several challenges needed to be addressed—including space limitations and the park’s ability to accommodate a variety of active lifestyles. The city brought in Kimley-Horn to complete the final design, facilitate public involvement in the process, and collaborate with the city and its residents to ensure City Park would reflect the active, outdoor lifestyles in the area.

Planning With The Community

A high level of public interest in park redevelopment emerged from numerous user groups, not only to improve the park but also to preserve its unique features. Separate focus-group meetings were held for skateboarders, disc golfers, cross-country skiers, softball associations, hockey teams, skateboard groups, neighbors of the park, and the general community to identify needs and wish-list items during the planning process. Kimley-Horn worked with Site Design Group to integrate skatepark items into the master plan, leaving room to expand the skatepark when funds became available. Each group provided input on the design, amenities, positives and negatives of the current park, and their vision for the future.

To ensure strong communication between the city and the community following these meetings, constituent groups viewed project updates on the city’s website and received regular email updates on the design process. Climate limitations in northern Minnesota meant that meeting key deadlines was crucial in order for the park to be ready for the upcoming softball season.

As the project manager at Kimley-Horn, I met with a local professional disc golfer to discuss the new course; as a result, access to the course was open to professionals and amateurs by accommodating both groups’ potential fairways and tee-box distances. Similarly, the local ski club walked the trails and assisted in determining an additional trail route. Workshops also were held with local skateboarders to ensure the design of a new skatepark—the first for the community—met the needs and abilities of all skaters.

With activities being so important to the users, the park was nicknamed "Bemidji Activity Park" to reflect the diverse groups who participated in the planning process.

Public Support For City Park

While the focus groups provided crucial design input, other local organizations took an active role in City Park. The Bemidji Skate and Bike Association contributed both funds and expertise to the skatepark project. The association also assisted in planning the November ribbon-cutting ceremony, to which over 100 community members attended. The disc-golf community assisted in garbage pick-up, brush removal, and course design. Several groups, including the ski club, skate and bike association, disc-golf club, hockey association, and softball association have committed to ongoing support through annual cleanup, mentoring programs, special events and tournament assistance, and general maintenance of their own facilities.

Overcoming Environmental Limitations

From contaminated soil to elevation issues, City Park’s location on a former landfill posed several challenges in site design. To stay within budget, the city and Kimley-Horn worked closely with a local sand quarry to import usable soil, and with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to ensure that all park features would be strategically placed on usable land. Grading was addressed by placing the baseball fields on the landfill site, using 30,000 cubic yards of imported soil. These fields were an excellent use of the site, and provided an additional environmental benefit of being compatible with the circulation of the park.

Since stormwater from the park eventually would run to a nearby wetland, newly designed rain gardens provided a creative stormwater-management tool not typically seen in parking lots in the region. Kimley-Horn created a pond where pretreated stormwater would flow from the parking lot. Native materials, including tamaracks, aspens, and birch, were used to create a seamless continuation pond, the adjacent bog, and the natural wetland. This aspect of the park also provided an educational opportunity for the nearby Bemidji Middle School, where students can now learn about stormwater and water quality.

Creative Solutions Lead To A Popular City Park

Despite several challenges, renovations stayed within the construction budget at approximately $3.5 million. Features of the redesign include:

  • A concrete plaza skatepark
  • Four lighted softball fields
  • Playground units for 5- to 12-year-olds and a tot lot
  • A shelter and picnic area
  • New hockey- and pleasure-skating rinks
  • A multi-use building with a warming house, restrooms, and concessions (final design and construction documents by EAPC Architects and Engineers)
  • An 18-hole disc-golf course (expanded from nine holes)
  • A ski-trail loop extension and new lighting
  • Landscaping
  • Irrigation (designed by MLC Irrigation Consultants)

In 2011, City Park won the Minnesota Park and Recreation Award of Excellence, the only park to receive the recognition that year. The new skatepark has become a popular attraction as Minnesota’s first public concrete skatepark with a 6-foot bowl. Fulfilling the mission of Bemidji’s Parks and Recreation Department to “provide facilities, activities, and parklands to enrich the lives of citizens and tourists,” City Park is now a popular recreation destination for the community and its many visitors.

Todd Halunen, PLA, CLARB, is a Lead Designer/Project Manager for Kimley-Horn in St. Paul, Minn. Reach him at