2016 City of Excellence Award Winners

Thirteen communities receive honors from League of Minnesota Cities
Cities of Belle Plaine, Hastings, Oak Park Heights, and a collaboration of 10 small cities selected as City of Excellence Award winners for 2016

(June 16, 2016—St. Paul, Minn.) City-administered initiatives that included development of a child safety program, revitalization of a downtown riverfront area, community construction of a new park and playground, and creation of a multi-jurisdictional broadband network were recognized today when the League of Minnesota Cities announced City of Excellence Award winners for 2016. The awards were presented earlier today at the League’s Annual Conference in St. Paul.

To compete for consideration as a City of Excellence, cities self-nominated a project, program, or initiative that was administered to achieve one or more of the following: improvement of the quality of a city service, development of an effective or innovative way to solve an old or common problem, modification of a program from another community or organization to fit city needs, discovery of a way to save the city money without compromising service results, and/or creative involvement of city staff or citizens in making a decision.

Winning entries were chosen in three population categories and in a special topical category. A description of each winning nomination follows.

Population under 5,000
Oak Park Heights—“From Pit to Park Project”
The city worked with volunteers, local businesses, and residents to turn a vacant, closed fly ash landfill pit into a new city park. The city also formed a task force of residents to create a formal plan that included suggested amenities to be located on the site, including a new playground, parking lot, trails, and a picnic pavilion.

The park was funded with the help of a grant from Kaboom!, Inc., and the city collaborated with the state of Minnesota, Xcel Energy, and a local business to design and construct an adjacent parking lot. To involve the community in creating a name for the park, the city’s Park Commission sponsored a contest for kids in the community under the age of 18.

Overall, the project served as an inspiring example of using community engagement to better quality of life in the city. Volunteer residents built the park’s playground area and constructed 50 benches that were placed in the park, as well as other parks and trails in the city. The city continues to tap into resources and seek input from citizens to improve what is now known as Oak Park Crossing Park, and has used the same development model to upgrade an existing neighborhood park each year.

Population 5,000 to 19,999
Cities of Brownton, Buffalo Lake, Fairfax, Gaylord, Gibbon, Green Isle, Lafayette, New Auburn, Stewart, and Winthrop—“RS Fiber Cooperative Project”
These 10 cities, along with 17 townships, worked collaboratively for five years to provide South Central Minnesota residents with access to high speed, affordable, and reliable gigabit internet service. The cities created a joint governance structure that aligned local taxpayer interests across entities, and initiated a public/private financing structure that enables residents to obtain internet broadband services at minimal risk.

The cities developed grassroots support for the project by hosting more than 150 meetings and by personally contacting hundreds of residents, local businesses, and government officials. Over the next five years, thousands of households and rural farm sites and hundreds of businesses and community organizations will be able to receive high-speed internet service access that greatly exceeds previous services provided by national telecommunications firms.

Communities need reliable broadband access to attract and retain new businesses and residents. The success of the “RS Fiber Cooperative Project” confirms the value of small communities working together with private interests to make a positive difference in lives of constituents.

Population 20,000+
City of Hastings—“Hastings Riverfront Renaissance”
For many years, the City of Hastings was a quiet Mississippi River town noted for a historic downtown area. Spurred by the construction of the Highway 61 Bridge, though, the community had a vision to become a premier gathering space for residents and visitors alike. A vision committee of city councilmembers, business leaders, and community groups organized to undertake a project that would attract visitors, enhance economic vitality, and improve quality of life for residents.

The city committed to a three-phase project with a budget of $7.6 million. Now in its third phase, the project’s success has encouraged current and planned economic development. The city has received $500,000 in Redevelopment Incentive Grants, and about $33 million of private development dollars has been committed in downtown Hastings. Additionally, a total of 17 businesses have invested in improvements or acquisitions.

Aside from investment, the project has evolved as a source of community pride, and a recent Grand Re-Opening of Levee Park on the Hastings RiverWalk event drew hundreds of attendees.

Topical category—Creative Programs in Public Safety Services
City of Belle Plaine—“Tiger Watch Program”
Tiger Watch is a community program designed to enhance the safety of young residents. The concept for the program was developed by Belle Plaine Police Chief Tom Stolee. It involves the identification of public facilities—city buildings, vehicles, and schools—along with participating local businesses as safe havens for children who are lost or whose safety is immediately threatened.

City staff and other participants at the approved facilities have gone through extensive background checks and have been trained to be the first contact, and will stay with the child until parents or police arrive to assist. Facilities participating in the program are visually indicated with a “Tiger Watch Safe Zone” decal in the window. Children or vulnerable adults who feel threatened are encouraged to seek facilities displaying the decal for safety.

Tiger Watch is a successful public/private partnership that could easily be replicated in other communities. By engaging a network of schools, businesses, and places of worship, the city helped to create a broader venue for community safety.

About the judges
The 2016 City of Excellence award nominations were judged by a two-person panel of past League of Minnesota Cities presidents, including Richard Brainerd, councilmember from the City of Mahtomedi, and Jim Miller, former executive director of the League.

About the League
The League of Minnesota Cities is a membership organization dedicated to helping cities throughout Minnesota build quality communities through effective advocacy, expert analysis, trusted guidance, and collective action. The League serves its more than 830 member cities through advocacy, education and training, policy development, risk management, and other services.