Mpls park board dedicates headquarters to its first Black leader

Photo by Anika Robbins Mary Merrill

Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board’s (MPRB) headquarters just got a new name. Last Friday, the board hosted a ceremony renaming its West River Road building to Mary Merrill Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Headquarters after Superintendent Emeritus Mary Merrill.

The dedication comes after the board passed a resolution in December 2018 to honor Merrill’s four decades of service to Minneapolis Parks and the youth and families they serve. She is just one of two women to have served as superintendent, making history as both the first woman and first person of color when she took on the position in 1999.

“This board owes so much of its accomplishments to Superintendent Emeritus Merrill,” said Brad Bourn, MPRB Board of Commissioners president.

“Over the Park Board’s 130-year history, two people had a monumental impact: Superintendent Emeritus Wirth — our second superintendent — and Superintendent Emeritus Merrill,” said Bourn during the dedication. “Thank you for sharing your work and allowing us to be the beneficiary of it.”

Alluding to the board’s Neighborhood Park Plan 2020 (NPP 2020), Bourn cited Merrill and former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton as its “grandmothers” — original authors of the initiative.

The historic agreement addresses racial and economic equity across 160 neighborhood parks using a data-driven, criteria-based system. It was implemented as a City-approved ordinance in 2016 after lying dormant for years under various administrations. In addition to maintaining current levels of MPRB funding, the agreement provides $11 million annually to maintain, repair and replace facilities through 2036.

“Mary Merrill was an exceptional public steward of Minneapolis Parks,” former Mayor Belton told the MSR. “She forged partnerships with the city of Minneapolis and others to strengthen park programs and its infrastructure. Significant improvements were made in our park system throughout the city because of our shared vision for Minneapolis.”

Scores of community members along with former and current MPRB staff, administrators and volunteers attended the ceremony honoring Merrill.

“I came to the [Park Board] because Mary was here,” said Al Bangoura, MPRB’s recently installed superintendent. The former park employee returned to the Twin Cities to begin a three-year contract with MPRB this past January. He now leads 570 full-time and 1,170 temporary employees, managing a $125 million budget.

Other attendees included Michael Schmidt, retired assistant superintendent for environmental stewardship and A.K. Hassan, vice president of the board of commissioners

Submitted photos Renaming ceremony of Mary Merrill Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board headquarters on May 17.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey declared May 17 “Mary Merrill Day” with a proclamation, read by MPRB Deputy Superintendent Jennifer Ringold, that detailed her devoted career.

Merrill started her career at Powderhorn Park in 1972 and rose through the ranks of the recreation department. Throughout her tenure, she helped design many of the board’s programs, including the Youthline Outreach Mentorship Program, Teen Teamworks, and Phat Summer.

She also guided new developments and expansions such as the Mississippi Mile, the Sculpture Gardens — in partnership with the Walker Arts Center — and the RiverFirst project, including the Upper Harbor Terminal transformation, to name a few.

Merrill is also credited with championing the acquisition of MPRB’s headquarters, which was renovated and opened in 2003. She retired that same year and later became the first former superintendent elected as a park commissioner in 2006. She came out of retirement to serve as interim superintendent in 2018.

“We own these parks… We have a right to make our wishes known,” Merrill said during the dedication. “But we can’t design these parks to be what they ultimately can be if we don’t understand the people who live here, and if the people don’t rise up to say this is what we need.”

Merrill’s name is now part of the signature park signage at the entrance, as well as on a plaque in the foyer of the building. Park board leaders are also exploring a complete redesign of the building’s entrance and current signage.

 “It means a lot, as a person of color, to come to a building that bears the name of someone who represents all of us,” said Corky Wiseman, MPRB director of community outreach.

Anika Robbins is the executive director of the ANIKA Foundation and a civil rights commissioner for the City of Minneapolis. She welcomes reader responses at info@theanikafoundation.org.

One Comment on “Mpls park board dedicates headquarters to its first Black leader”

  1. Right ON and hoooraaay! I love Mary, I love Sharon, I love you, Anika, and I love our Minneapolis Neighborhood Parks. I have taken my son–who is now 40 years old–and other children to various parks in our great system. I am a Singer, Songwriter, and Actor and I have performed in various parks in our great system. I find it very exciting that Mary continues to be honored and I am thrilled with my relationship to the Park Board’s history. May we all continue to Shine!!!

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