As city staffers work on designs to reconfigure Memorial Park in northeast Brainerd to gain back what the city will lose when its lease on Mill Avenue Park ends in 2021, a new parking option could alter the city’s plans.

In January, the city reached a new two-year lease agreement with Mill Avenue Park owner Mike Higgins, who also owns the parking lot at Memorial Park, to continue using both facilities until March 2021.

The previous lease agreement for the two parcels dates back to 1989, with the most recent five-year agreement entered into with the previous owner of the former paper mill, Wausau Paper, and signed in January 2014. That agreement, which Higgins assumed when he bought the property that is now home to Brainerd Industrial Center in 2014, ended Jan. 20, 2019.

The 8-acre Mill Avenue Park has one adult and one youth softball field, two hockey rinks and a warming house, all of which the city will lose access to when the new lease agreement expires, along with the parking lot at Memorial Park.

In August, the parks board enlisted Widseth Smith Nolting to do a scope assessment to figure out exactly what the city wants to see in the designs for an upgraded Memorial Park. The original plans drawn up for the park’s redesign were estimated to cost anywhere between $2.5 million to $4.4 million, which both parks board and council members said were much higher than expected. Instead, the council agreed to the $20,000 scope assessment by WSN, the findings from which will be presented to the city council at its next meeting Oct. 21.

During the most recent council meeting Monday, Oct. 7, Higgins said he is open to selling the Memorial Park parking lot to the city for $300,000.

“We’re looking at developments on the south end of the property now that the Volkswagen program is done, and we’re just trying to figure out if we want to put that 3 acres as part of this development plan or you guys want to buy it,” Higgins told the council.

Higgins said he approached the parks board about buying the parking lot a couple months ago but never heard back, adding he doesn’t think it’s in the city’s best interest to move forward without the parking lot.

As he passed the parking lot on his way to the council meeting Monday, Higgins said there were more than 100 cars parked there to watch kickball tournaments.

“On a day-to-day basis, for five months a year, there’s anywhere from 50-200 cars in that parking lot,” he added. “And I don’t care what the parks board does, if they continue using that park the way they’re using it, they cannot park those cars on the streets and on County Road 3, so it doesn’t make much sense for me not to sell it to you guys.”

The original redesign the parks board presented in August included a new parking lot. The lowest estimate for the project -- which came from WSN -- put the cost of the new parking lot and stormwater basin grading at $250,000.

Higgins said he estimates the cost of a new parking lot comparable to the nearly 3-acre one currently at Memorial Park to be anywhere between $425,000-$500,000.

“So I feel that $300,000 is a fair price for that property, and I just need to know what you guys want to do,” Higgins said, noting he would like to have a decision by the end of the year so he can give the city a year’s notice on what he ultimately decides to do with the property if the city doesn’t buy it.

Council President Gabe Johnson said he is in favor of buying the parking lot at a fair market rate. Council member Kelly Bevans suggested having the personnel and finance committee look into what the park is worth and whether the city can afford it.

Interim City Administrator Jim Thoreen reminded the council of the parks board’s impending plans and suggested waiting to make a decision until seeing the results of the scope assessment in two weeks.

Council member Dave Badeaux said he would like to make a decision on Higgins’ proposal as soon as possible and noted the addition of a parking lot likely wouldn’t ruin the parks board’s plan. Parks Director Tony Sailer confirmed that, noting the parks board really just wanted to have a plan in place if the city does not retain the parking lot.

Council member Dave Pritschet said he would still like to see the results of WSN’s assessment and how much money is in the final plan for a new parking lot.

The council ultimately agreed to get an appraisal done on the parking lot and put the issue on the agenda for the next personnel and finance committee meeting.

City Engineer Paul Sandy said the last appraisal the city had done cost about $3,000.

Higgins said he is fine with waiting another couple weeks on a decision.