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Minot Park Board candidates see challenges post-COVID

Contenders see operational challenges post-COVID

Jill Schramm/MDN Minot Park Board candidates Justin Hammer, left, and Cliff Hovda listen to a question at a Chamber of Commerce forum Tuesday.

Minot park board candidates see the need for leaner budgets and different operating methods in a post-coronavirus environment. They discussed their views on how to continue advancing Minot’s facilities and quality of life in a new environment at an online forum Tuesday, sponsored by the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce.

Two seats will be filled in the city’s June 9 election. Running are incumbents Cliff Hovda and Steve Wharton and newcomers Ken Kitzman, Justin Hammer and Jeff Risk.

The candidates expect the COVID-19 pandemic to affect parks and recreation activities.

“Certainly, as we come out of it, we hope we’ll have a better idea of where we’re at financially,” Wharton said. “We may have to back off on some things that we have on our long-term plan and we are working on now. We just have to slow down a little bit and re-examine.”

He said the district must first take care of what it has and maintain staff.

Jill Schramm/MDN Ken Kitzman, left, speaks at a forum for Minot Park Board candidates Tuesday in Minot City Hall. At right is Jeff Risk and far right is Steve Wharton.

“A lot of that just comes down to just being smart with our funds,” Wharton said.

Hammer suggested some COVID-19 changes to operations will become standard, such as the increased cleaning of facilities.

“Obviously, I think it’s going to change the way people think about doing things in their everyday lives for the rest of their lives, as far as social distancing, putting their kids in recreation activities. I think a lot of parents are going to be thinking about ‘Do I really want my child to be in that activity?'” Hammer said. “The park district really needs to take that into consideration and research and find out what kind of things can we do to adapt to that situation. Are there different activities that are better suited to be offered?”

Hammer also anticipates leaner times.

“When the times get tough, you need to tighten the belt up. You need to build efficiencies and that probably needs to start right now,” he said. “Merging the parks and recreation departments together was probably the first step in building efficiency.”

Hovda said the park district will be affected by reduced user fees and donations.

“We’re going to have to probably shift our priorities. There’s perhaps going to be some cutbacks,” Hovda said. “Perhaps things that we’re thinking about this year could be delayed a year.

“We can’t afford to be a burden to the citizens during these times,” he added. “We have to look at the revenue constantly, and the expenses constantly, and make a judgment. I would really like to keep the people. I don’t foresee that changing. We need them in most positions. They are absolutely critical. You can’t run the zoo, the golf course, a lot of the projects without them. And we have good people. You don’t want to lay them off and have to try to get them back.”

Kitzman said cuts will be needed if the park district cannot afford expenses.

“We’re going to see shrinkage in our community,” Kitzman said, “which will lead to fewer taxes. We really, really need to think out of the box now. How do we deliver a better product at a lower cost that the citizens want and prioritize those things that need to be in our community for a quality of life?

“The longer term challenge for Parks and Recreation is going to be quality of life still, but in a different way,” he said, noting that enjoying facilities safely will be the emphasis. “We have to find a creative way to do those things, and I believe there are ways to do those things.”

Risk said he would examine the budget for places to cut because population and tax losses will impact the park district. However, he added, sitting back for several years lets any available money go elsewhere and leaves the park district with nothing more than it has now.

“It’s just going to make partnerships that much more important,” he said. “I think we can create partnerships in the city and try to bring people together and still move forward with some projects.

“I’d like to be a part of making decisions to move us forward,” he said.

Candidates also provided thoughts on future improvements to recreational facilities, particularly softball, golf and an aquatic center.

They suggested softball could benefit from better use of existing softball fields now that parks and recreation are combined but questioned the ability to build a tournament center, given the level of softball interest. Hovda said the park board has talked with the city and school about using the former Ramstad school land to develop more recreational facilities, which might include softball, he said.

“There’s no question that the softball is an economic engine that we should try to capture as much as we can,” Kitzman said. “That being said, there right now are so many wish lists going on that where do you invest those funds?”

An aquatic center appealed to the candidates, although the cost of construction, operation and maintenance are daunting.

“That aquatic center is something that needs to be looked at very hard to bring that quality of life to our community,” Hammer said.

Hovda said the park board’s plan is to build an aquatic center next to Maysa Arena, which would create efficiencies to lower costs, but he doesn’t see that happening in the near future.

Kitzman agreed the aquatic center is needed but operations will be expensive.

“If the taxpayers and the citizens of Minot want to use this and make it a critical part of our quality of life, then it’s important that they support it because it will never fund itself,” he said. “This will never be a money maker.”

However, he added at some point the issue must be addressed because the existing indoor pool at Magic City Campus soon will reach its lifespan.

Risk said a plan must include a partnership with other groups.

“If you’re going to try to do it on your own, there’s no way. But there is money in our city. It’s just getting the people to buy into something that we would like to do,” Risk said.

Because Souris Valley Golf Course is at flood risk, candidates supported planning for the day a new golf course becomes necessary. Wharton said the board is working on a plan that should be on the shelf shortly.

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