Empty basketball pole in Oakdale Park in West St. Paul

Debating Basketball in West St. Paul

(This post is brought to you thanks to our Kickstarter backers)

Update (May 29, 2019): The city council approved returning basketball on May 28 with a 4-1 vote.

On Tuesday the West St. Paul city council will consider whether to return basketball hoops to two parks in the city. Two hoops. One in each park.

If this sounds like a bit of micromanagement, you’re not wrong.

But it’s also a story with some history.

The basketball court at Oakdale Park with two empty poles.

The Backstory

Back in 2005, Haskell Park in the northeastern corner of West St. Paul was plagued with problems:

“…selling drugs, bullying children, littering, parking in no parking zones and public urination.”

(Sun Newspapers, April 14, 2005)

“…assaults, parties after the park closed at 10 p.m., drug use, public urination, loud music, trash, vandalism, verbal harassment of area residents.”

(Pioneer Press, April 23, 2005)

The solution? No more basketball.

All backboards and hoops (but not the poles) were removed from Haskell Park. The council voted six months later to make the temporary removal permanent. The backboards in Oakdale Park followed in 2006.

One of three empty poles at Haskell Park.

And it worked:

“I love basketball, but I don’t like criminals. This has instantly cured the problem. Everybody knew the source of the problem. That court was the gathering point.”

-Neighbor Coleman Kelley, Pioneer Press, April 23, 2005

Removal the Only Solution?

What’s unclear is if that was the only option. There were additional problems at Harmon, Emerson, and Weschke parks in 2007 and 2008. Police patrols were increased, Weschke went down to only half court, and Harmon eventually lost its court in the 2014-2015 redesign.

A 2005 Sun Newspaper article noted, “This was a problem long ago. Then the city spruced up the park. But now, the problem has returned.”

So maybe sprucing up the park was an option.

The police response in 2005 is also unclear. In 2005, former Council member Jim Englin said the police department lacked the resources to address the issues and also described “the harassment of an unarmed community police officer” in a Pioneer Press article. At a recent City Council Open Work Session (OCWS), current Council member Bob Pace lamented the lack of a report on the previous efforts by police.

But regardless of what was tried, the hoops came down.

The Current Story

The issues went away and the courts have barely changed in the more than a dozen years since. Three empty poles stand in cracked blacktop at Haskell Park and two more at Oakdale Park. Haskell at least had some hopscotch and four square lines painted onto the asphalt.

The basketball court at Oakdale, which has three empty poles and hopscotch and four square.

Over the past year the Parks & Recreation Committee has been reconsidering hoops in Haskell and Oakdale Parks.

On March 12, the committee held a public hearing. Six neighbors voiced strong disapproval, pointing to the problems from more than a dozen years ago, while seven other residents spoke in support of returning basketball hoops.

The Parks & Recreation Committee ultimately voted unanimously to restore one hoop to each park on a trial basis with signage about usage and enforcement, as well as monitoring by park staff and the police department. They also recommend reevaluating the issue in one year.

Empty pole at Haskell Park.

The city council discussed the proposal in a couple recent OCWS meetings. Council members Pace and Dick Vitelli, who both represent ward 1 where the parks in question reside, said they were adamantly opposed to restoring the hoops. The other four council members and Mayor Dave Napier seem to be in support of restoring the hoops.

(Though rumor is one of the four supporting council members will be absent on Tuesday. The measure needs four yes votes to pass—the mayor doesn’t get a vote unless there’s a tie. So it’s possible the hoops will get three yes votes and two no votes—and still fail.)

The Issues

  • Where else: Basketball still exists in five other parks in West St. Paul, as well as four schools.
  • Equity: Regardless of how many courts there are in the city, some have made an equity argument, saying that residents should have equal access to basketball in parks. Most notably, Planning Commissioners Morgan Kavanaugh and Samantha Green both said the recently approved 2040 Comprehensive Plan supports returning basketball to the parks.
  • Current issues: Do other parks have the same problems? Nope. A report of police calls in parks shows only five basketball related calls in a year—none of which rise to the level of drugs and assaults from 2005. The report lacks a lot of needed context (“kids in park”?!), but it’s clear West St. Paul doesn’t currently have the same issues that plagued basketball courts back then.
  • Policing: Some have suggested that better policing could help address any potential issues. West St. Paul now has a dedicated parks officer, something lacking in 2005. There was even a recent report of a police officer playing a game of PIG with youth in Emerson after a noise complaint. The officer took the time to talk with the youth and address the noise issues (and yes, the police officer noted the irony of suggesting a game of PIG).
  • Too close: Council members Pace and Vitelli have argued that basketball should be reserved for large parks where it can be located away from neighbors, but also accessible for police to drive by and monitor the courts. That idea hasn’t been included in any long-term planning, and basketball was removed from Harmon during the redesign and taken off the table for the Sports Complex—two of the city’s biggest parks.
  • Easy win: From a purely practical perspective, these parks have five poles that have been standing empty for more than a decade. Many have argued this is an easy amenity the city can add.
  • Cost: From a monetary perspective, backboards and hoops will cost approximately $1,300 each.

And if you’re exhausted by all the back and forth, you’re not alone. Council member Anthony Fernandez argued for a quick vote on the hoops so we can move on to more pressing issues.

Basketball will come before the council at the next meeting on Tuesday, May 28 at 6:30 p.m. at city hall. Neighbors immediately surrounding the parks have been notified. Mayor Napier said he’d give the public a chance to give their input. If you’d like to weigh in, you can come to the meeting or contact your city council members.

My Take

Empty pole in Oakdale Park.

Personally, I think the problems reported back then were serious and shouldn’t be dismissed. But 2005 was a long time ago. That’s pre-iPhone, pre-YouTube, and pre-public Facebook (so apparently kids today will be too busy online to even play basketball).

But seriously, the main question seems to be: Will the problems of more than a decade ago come back?

Currently we don’t have the same problems at other basketball courts in the city, so it seems odd to suggest they’ll suddenly re-materialize. We also have a dedicated parks officer, and with the kind of community policing we’ve seen on display, I’m confident we can address any issues that do arise.

Let the kids play basketball.

And all this debate for two hoops? I agree with Fernandez: Let’s get on with the real work of the city.

(Thanks to our Kickstarter supporters for making posts like this possible. If you’d like to support West St. Paul Reader, you can back our Kickstarter campaign now—and get some great rewards.)

2 comments

  1. While I’m reluctant to override the votes of the council members from the ward where the hoops reside — it seems discourteous — I’m also having a really hard time finding a downside to this measure.

    If it works (and there’s good reason to think it will), everybody wins, and a cash-strapped city gets a significant new amenity for basically nothing. If it fails (which is entirely possible), it’s a trial basis and the hoops will come right back down; nobody loses and we’re only out $2600.

    Anyway, that’s just me soapboxing. This is a great piece. Nicely reported, helped me make sense of a lot of OWCR minutes I’ve read without context, and very promising for the future of the blog (which is to be expected, given the blog’s long history). I’ll talk to my wife and see if we can’t throw at least something into the Kickstarter.

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