The city of St. Cloud and St. Cloud State University have proposed a land swap deal that, if agreed upon, will reopen the George W. Friedrich Park by August 2015.
Access to the park is from the east end of University drive. The park shares boundaries with the Minnesota Correctional Facility – St. Cloud on the southeast, and Highway 10 on the east.
The park was named after George W. Friedrich, an SCSU professor that encouraged former President George Selke, who was president of the university when they purchased the land. The park has been closed for decades.
“Friedrich Park is a 50.8-acre parcel [and] is owned for a number of years by the college,” said Tammy McGee, vice president of Finance and Administration at St. Cloud State University. “It’s the quarry that built a lot of different parts of Selke field.”
The beginning of the Granite City
The wooded property was originally home to the Hilder Granite Quarries as well as an outdoor swimming facility. A Swedish immigrant named Gottfried J. Hilder started a quarry there in the early 19th century due to the many deposits of granite common to the area, according to History of Stearns County.
The quarry was abandoned soon after Hilder’s death in 1921.
The Hilder Quarries are unique in that there are few to no grout deposits spread throughout the area. Evidence of quarrying is still visible, you can see cement supports for the heavy machinery spread throughout the area.
The Green and Young Quarry, that is partially on the property but mostly inside the prison walls at the St. Cloud Reformatory, was Minnesota’s first quarry. Starting with these two quarries is what made St. Cloud known as the “Granite City” because they literally built the foundation of the city, said St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis.
“The quarries that the university purchased are mainly the Hilder Quarries. During the Depression a number of them went bankrupt,” Kleis said. “People just weren’t building with the granite out of there anymore, so the university took advantage of some foreclosed land.”
Friedrich was a prominent biology professor at SCSU, and he believed in teaching biology in a natural setting. This area served as an outdoor lab and recreational area for the college.
“Friedrich was on the city park board back then, as well as a very popular professor at St. Cloud State from what I have read about him at that time,” Kleis said. “He was a conservationist and he wanted to get hands on education for the students at St. Cloud State.”
Friedrich was very involved in the conversation in Minnesota. In the 1930s former Gov. Floyd Olson appointed him to the Minnesota State Board of Conservation.
The university did not just purchased the land, they used it extensively, Kleis said.
“It was the premiere swimming area for the state, there were state swim and diving meets,” Kleis said. “They also had an Olympic swimmer back in the 1930s when it opened up. There was a water carnival that was a statewide event that took place in the quarry.”
This led the park to be used as a marketing tool to help bring people to the university. It was considered the place to be, Kleis said. It started to have its first decline post World War II, but was still used extensively up until the 1970s.
Decline of the park
“In the 1970s, college and high school kids used it for parties,” Kleis said. “Starting in the 1960s, the university started having less involvement at the park, there were some incidents that took place that due to the university’s liability that caused them to close it.”
“The university has not used it except for the track and field activities up in the park but there hasn’t been any consistent organized activity,” McGee said. “We consider it to be land that is underutilized, and it is also land that we are responsible for the safety and security of people when they are in there and to control access to that land.”
The university has been looking at the property for at least a decade and has been in discussions with the city.
“Are there higher and better uses [for the land] than to leave it dormant in this current state,” McGee asked.
There were attempts since then to reopen it. The most recent time was in the early 2000s.
“The last president and I tried to open it, but we found that the water quality was less than desirable,” Kleis said. “Since then President Potter and I have tried to figure out a way to open it up this year.”
The city has been interested in converting this area into a park for public use and make it available for swimming and other outdoor activities year round.
Proposed land swap deal between SCSU and the city
In the proposed land swap deal with the city, the university is looking to obtain property on the southeast side of campus along the Mississippi.
“On our property down by the K and Q lots we do not own that land, it is a former railroad bed that we use, but we do not own that land,” McGee said. “We want to make correct the proper ownership that reflects the use of the land.”
The other parcel of land that the university is looking at is across from where fourth avenue turns into 16th street.
The land would be used for the Outdoor Endeavors and Recreation for which the city has no use for. The land would come under the control of the university, McGee said.
The last piece of land is used by the city for their parks and recreation maintenance shed. The university would not take any direct control over it for a number of years.
The proposed deal would keep the city’s maintenance shed there for five years, while the city builds a new one now that the voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase.
“We wanted to see what would happen with the half-cent sales tax that the voters approved,” Kleis said. “Now we have a long term funding source to replace that building, at the same time we have an opportunity to swap out the land we weren’t using.”
Kleis said that the university land was appraised and the city land appraised the three parcels, and the value is about the same. It is one of the state requirements that the value is the same, or you would have to pay for it. The parcels of land the city owns is worth $294,000. The park is worth about $328,000.
“Hopefully at next Monday’s city council meeting they approve it, then the MnSCU board will approve it. We are confident that they will since the value is about equal,” Kleis said. “It allows the university to not have the liability that they have had. The reason the university closed the park in the 1970s was because the legal liability changed.”
The city has a lot of parkland but their liability is not the same as the university. The city maintains over 1500 acres of parkland, and much of it is natural.
“Our goal is, if the approvals take place, to open it up exactly 80 years from the year it was opened up for swimming, Kleis said. “We will be approaching the state for hopefully some bonding dollars that will help clean up the water.”
Becoming a forest
Friedrich was interested in restoring the habitat. He went around planting trees such as oak, aspen, red and white pine. Regardless of whatever the habitat was, the whole area is now a forest, said William Cook, professor of biology at SCSU.
“We do not know 100 percent what the habitat was,” Cook said. “In all likely hood if we go back before European colonization, it could have been a forest or a prairie.”
“It’s not a really good forest, [and] that is mainly because it is packed with an invasive species called buckthorn,” Cook said. “Buckthorn was brought over from Europe in the 1800s because people thought it would look pretty in there yard.”
They produce massive numbers of seeds and the keep doing this. The understory gets filed up with a monoculture of this shrub. They grow so densely that they block out the light for smaller plants, Cook said.
“So what we have today is this overstory of trees from the 20th century and we have this understory of invasive shrub,” Cook said. “I am afraid to say it is getting worse.”
Unfortunately, it is not an ideal habitat for wildlife. It’s missing a lot of plant species that would have otherwise have been there.
“To restore it we would have to work on killing the buckthorn, which is a major endeavor, it is very well established,” Cook said. “You would need people to go around and cut down the buckthorn and spray herbicide on the stumps.”
“You would never fully get rid of it,” he said.
To help address these problems and the water quality, the city plans to ask the state for about $6 million in bonding dollars to make improvements at the park.