For those who have spent any time walking around the Oak or Roosevelt parks, their red wooden benches with bright yellow lettering might be as familiar a sight as the oak and maple trees that line the paved trails. Like the Triangle Building at the southeast end of the North Broadway Bridge, these will soon become things of the past.
"We've had a bench program in place that goes back 25 years or more," explained Steve Wharton, horticulturist with the Minot Parks Department, who is heading the transition. Originally conceived as a way to both provide for the upkeep of the park system's benches and give locals an opportunity to memorialize a loved one, for a one-time fee a bench could be bought, labeled and installed in perpetuity.
Perpetuity posed a problem, however, as the popularity of the program contributed to a surplus of benches at the same time that rising material prices were making their upkeep more expensive. The wooden benches did not age very well either, with North Dakota's extreme weather transitions fading the paint and weakening the slats. Then came 2011, and the Souris River's flood.
Like much else affected by that flood, the parks' benches didn't fare well. Some had been submerged for so long as to be bloated and unsalvageable, while others were swept away by the swift-moving water, never to be recovered. The rest were left in a varied state, which staff and an assortment of volunteers have since been in the process of restoring.
"It's a golden opportunity to have volunteers help restore them," said Wharton, citing a number of church groups that have been quite helpful. But in the enthusiasm of rebuilding additional orders were being placed for new benches to an extent which, with the uncertainty of Minot's levee rechannelization and other assorted building projects being proposed, led to fears that there wouldn't be enough space to put them all.
If the flood were a stormy cloud, a silver lining might be that the district has finally been given an opportunity to reevaluate its bench program. "Now's a good time to do that," Wharton believes, asking "how can we give them what they want and still be efficient?"
"Do we need more?" Wharton had first asked himself, before putting the question to the commissioners of the Minot Park Board. At Tuesday's meeting he requested that they put a freeze on the sponsoring of new benches, arguing that for the present funds could be better directed elsewhere. After some discussion the board moved ahead with his request, giving Wharton time to fully inventory what the park system has and how best to move forward from there.
One of the conclusions he has already reached is that the benches themselves need an upgrade. After looking at different options, Wharton said it was finally decided to use a kind of compressed polycarbonate similar to that used in decking. The sturdy stuff has a number of benefits over wood, as "it cuts down on maintenance and labor tenfold, stays nicer looking for a much longer period of time," is reinforced with metal and so "hard to vandalize," and has a lighter pine color that should blend well with the park setting. The department is still transitioning these in, but Wharton promises that "eventually we'll have all newer materials."
The memorial element of the bench program will still be continued, but in light of the previous problems of upkeep may need to be revised. While grandfathering in previous sponsors, Wharton is toying with an idea to "maybe limit how long names stay," considering timeframes like a year or 18 months. Rather than being etched into the slats, sponsors' names would be inscribed on an exchangeable plaque.
Making "every effort that if they donated they get to keep their bench," Wharton has been on a bit of a hunt, tracking down those sponsors. When it became certain the valley would flood, Wharton made sure to double check all of the system's benches to make sure they were listed in the departmental records. "We have taken pretty good records over the years," though, and he said all the donors were accounted for.
It has still been a difficult task, unsurprising considering that many had long since died or moved out of the area. "I've been pretty diligent finding most of them," he said, with some turning up as far off as the West Coast, having either moved there to retire or else being next-of-kin.
Some were taken completely by surprise, having forgotten all about it. "A few gave up their benches," said Wharton, mostly from among those who had donated benches during the early 1990s or earlier. On the other hand, there were some who had phoned in, inquiring what had become of their bench. At least a few were quite relieved to hear about the program's continuation.