When the national Trust for Public Land ranked Minneapolis and St. Paul as the best big-city park systems in the nation, it wasn’t a shock to Susan Schmidt, the group’s state director. “It speaks to the deep values of the Twin Cities and Minnesota, that parks play such a role,” she says.
Whether in a community large or small, it’s an often-overlooked force of public workers who keep the Twin Cities’ parks, playgrounds, pools, and picnic areas clean, safe and inviting. From planning to programming to mowing, they’re most likely AFSCME.
Charlie Davis, of Local 224 in Shorewood, has been making a day at the park possible for decades. In addition to public works duties, his primary role is overseeing the city’s beach and five parks. In summer, that means picking up trash; whacking weeds; tilling the community garden; mowing soccer fields, ball fields, and open space; maintaining picnic pavilions and playground equipment; and dragging the infields of softball diamonds every afternoon. After 29 years, he says: “I just go out there and do it every day. It’s routine.”
Routine or not, it’s a lot of work, says Gary Koesling, of Ramsey County Parks Local 1935. “I don’t think people realize the total magnitude of what it takes just to keep one of these going and make it nice. They don’t see it. It’s behind the scenes, or it’s done by the time they get here.”
Wash, rinse and repeat
Ramsey County is a premier example of the region’s commitment to parks. It is the state’s smallest county geographically, but has the state’s largest county park system, says Steve Reeves, treasurer of Local 1935. His local’s members maintain Ramsey’s nine county parks, six regional parks, 23 miles of trails – and all the facilities that go with them. That includes beaches, a water park, picnic pavilions, a nature center, five golf courses, dog parks, fishing piers, and 11 ice arenas.
Reeves and Eric Jones are among staff who care for Keller Regional Park, one of the county’s busiest. Five days a week, their crews cut grass, clear trash, clean bathrooms, and clean picnic shelters. Other crews are dedicated exclusively to hectic weekend duty.
“Once school gets out, these places are packed,” says Local 1935’s Rick Labore. “The weather gets nice, they’re packed. Some of them are just insane, where they have to have police to regulate how many are going in and out.”
“The trash barrels are full,” Jones says. “The bathrooms are pretty bad: They have to be cleaned out daily, totally sprayed down, toilet paper, cleaning the porcelain, the whole nine yards.”
Getting picnic shelters spiffed up in time for events is a priority. “When people show up at 11 o’clock for their big picnic or wedding or class reunion, everything’s ready to rock,” Reeves says. “They don’t know that the guy that did it was there at 5:30 in the morning.”
Going to the dogs – in a good way
While Jones and his crews take care of daily chores, members like Koesling perform the support maintenance that keeps the parks and trails in repair. “It’s a little bit of everything,” Koesling says. His crew is on call throughout the county – sometimes rushing from one site to another several times a day.
“We’ll mount benches, picnic tables, take down trees that need to come down. There’s buildings. There’s storm damage. One day we might be working on a boat pier, the next day we’ll be roughing out a trail, or landscaping, or putting in a culvert, or clearing out a culvert that’s clogged, or out repairing something. It’s a whole mish-mash.”
The county’s parks have many more facilities and features than when Koesling started working 34 years ago. From his perspective, trails and dog parks are prime examples of how things have changed.
“What started out as being some open space set aside as a place to run your dog off leash, now they’ve become fenced, and they have nice bathrooms, and you have to have separate bull pens to keep the little dogs away from the big dogs.
“But people love their dog parks. They’re very, very busy – but they’re very high-maintenance. We’re constantly hauling wood chips to them. Lots of maintenance on fences. A lot of fixing gates.”
Sticking up for each other
Regardless of their duties, Ramsey County crews say their co-workers make the days go quicker.
“The crews are pretty tight,” Koesling says. “It makes it fun.”
“We really take care of each other,” Reeves says. “We’re not always working on the fun stuff. But if you’re with the right group – which this whole local is the right group – that work can really turn around in a hurry. If you can enjoy your day when you’re cleaning toilets and picking up other people’s garbage, that says a lot right there.”
Reeves says his crews also get to enjoy something not all public workers get – positive feedback. After all, many people who use the parks are there for a celebration, he says. “They’re having a baby shower, or an anniversary party. So people – not always, but generally – have a smile. And more often than not, somebody will come by and say, ‘Thanks for taking care of the park. We notice. We appreciate it.’ It’s nice to get that.”
Adapted from the July-August 2013 issue of Council 5's Stepping Up magazine.