A couple of years ago, Excelsior resident Deb Rodgers was chatting with neighbors about the less-than-ideal state of the Excelsior Commons and Port of Excelsior. After the successful revitalization of the downtown area, they’d noticed the 13-acre park between downtown and the lake was starting to erode from increased traffic over the years. Rather than grumble, Rodgers decided to do something about it. “I said, ‘You know what? Why don’t I take this on as a mission and a way to give back to my community?’ ” Rodgers says.
After doing some research and talking with other Excelsior residents, she founded Community for The Commons in 2015 with the goal of improving the park in the long term. Community for The Commons is a park conservancy, a type of nonprofit organization that works with local government and helps fund enhancements for public parks. More than half of major cities in the U.S. have a park conservancy, and Rodgers knew it would make sense for Excelsior.
The organization is now working with the city to bring updates to the beloved lakefront park. Two city officials sit in as nonvoting members on the Community for The Commons board, and two members of the nonprofit sit on a city committee tasked with creating a request for proposal for architectural services. That six-member group is currently working on the three-phase process of developing the proposal.
Phase one involved gathering data about the current uses of the park, and its current costs and funding. Ongoing this summer is phase two, which involves getting input from Excelsior residents and stakeholders. “We really want the public to be the ones to put together the wish list and the priorities,” Rodgers says.
Parks and recreation commission chair and planning committee member Tom Wolfe says public engagement will be a huge part of the process. “Ultimately, it’s the people’s park, and the master plan should reflect and provide opportunities for what people want to do down there,” he says.
Phase three of the project will involve creating a request for proposal and commissioning a design firm to help finalize the plans for the park. Once the master plan is established, Community for The Commons will start fundraising to help finance the improvements. Wolfe says some enhancements are long overdue. The park hasn’t seen any major renovations for many years, and he says facilities like the band shell, concessions stand and bathrooms are in need of updating.
In addition to upgraded aesthetics, Wolfe has heard community members float ideas for various new amenities for the park, including a skating rink or a sand volleyball court. Wolfe emphasizes that the goal is not to overdevelop The Commons or turn it into a big commercial enterprise, but rather to modernize it while maintaining its character. “We just want to take what we’ve got, which is an amazing piece of property, and make it better,” he says.
The Commons has a rich history in Excelsior as a regionally popular spot for recreation and events since it was founded in 1855. Rodgers hopes the updates the community chooses will honor that history while breathing new life into the park. For the members of Community for The Commons, the motivation for joining the cause comes down to simply loving the community space.
Rodgers encourages those looking to get involved to visit the Community for The Commons website and Facebook page for more information; members receive more detailed updates and help show that the cause is important to them by signing up. Volunteer opportunities are on the horizon, especially when fundraising gets started.
Board member and planning committee member Eric Snyder says Excelsior’s founders had great foresight in setting aside the public space. “Everyone on the work group and everyone on Community for The Commons feels like we really have an obligation to be good stewards of that park,” Snyder says. “It’s so beautiful and unique, and there just aren’t many places like it around.”