Anoka County’s parks celebrating 50 years

Anoka County opened its first park 50 years ago.

Now the county’s park system boasts 14 regional (eight) and county (six) parks, six regional trails and three nature and conservation areas, covering more than 11,000 acres of parkland, and 50-plus miles of trails.

A crowded beach at Lake George Regional Park in Oak Grove. Park development took place in 1988. Photo courtesy of the Anoka County Parks and Recreation Department

A crowded beach at Lake George Regional Park in Oak Grove. Park development took place in 1988. Photo courtesy of the Anoka County Parks and Recreation Department

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the county’s park system, two events are planned.

The first, Wednesday, June 19 from 6 to 7 p.m. will be a ceremony at the first county park, Kordiak Park, which was originally known as Highland Lake Park, on 49th Avenue NE in Columbia Heights.

The second event scheduled Thursday, Aug. 15 from 4 to 7 p.m. is at Bunker Beach, which is located in Bunker Hills Regional Park.

It was longtime former Anoka County Board member and chairperson Al Kordiak, who served on the board from 1954 through 1986, who was responsible for the establishment of the Anoka County park system. For his vision and leadership, he became known as the “father of Anoka County parks.”

Al Kordiak recognized the need for a county park in his home town of Columbia Heights as residential development grew, according to County Commissioner Jim Kordiak, who is Al’s son and succeeded his father on the county board.

But at that time, in the late 1950s, the county did not have the legal power to acquire land for park purposes, said Kordiak, who chairs the county’s Parks and Recreations Committee.

It took a couple of tries before Al Kordiak was successful in getting the necessary state legislation passed in 1961.

Then Al Kordiak negotiated a deal with the developer of single-family homes around the 18-acre park site in Columbia Heights that was to become Highland Lake Park, now Kordiak Park, Kordiak said.

“It used to be known as Peck’s woods,” he said.

The developer donated the land for the park with the agreement that the roadway that runs round the park would also benefit his properties, according to Kordiak.

While the 77 mm howitzer that stands in Kordiak Park was purchased in 1962, the county park system was born in 1963 when Highland Lake Park opened and the county board put in place a parks and recreation department as well as a parks committee that was chaired by Al Kordiak.

The same year, 1963, four camper cabins were completed at Camp Salie in Linwood Township, Kordiak said.

Funding for the acquisition of property for parks and trails over the years has largely come through federal and state grants, said John VonDeLinde, county parks and recreation director since 1994.

VonDeLinde succeeded Dave Thorkildson, who had been appointed park supervisor in 1963 and later was named director.

Initially, the funding was through the federal Land and Water Conservation (LAWCON) grant program, but more recently it has come from state and Metropolitan Council bonding for the metropolitan regional parks system (the Minnesota Legislature established the metropolitan system in 1974), the state Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources and the state Legacy grant program, which derives its revenues from the state sales tax increase approved by voters in 2008, VonDeLinde said.

“The Legacy dollars have become our biggest source of funding,” he said.

Those same state dollars are now being used to pay for the redevelopment of the regional parks, VonDeLinde said.

“We are very pleased to be getting this money,” Kordiak said.

According to a timeline provided by VonDeLinde, 1966 was the first year that the county acquired more park property after Highland Lake Park opened.

First, 13.6 acres was acquired at the confluence of Rice Creek and the Mississippi River in Fridley to create Manomin County Park, where Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts is located today.

That same year, the county purchased 160 acres at Bunker Prairie Park, which was later named Bunker Hills Regional Park and where development began in 1969 when another 135 acres was added to the park; more land was acquired in subsequent years.

“All 1,600 acres in the park were acquired through LAWCON dollars,” VonDeLinde said.

Park acquisition and development continued apace in the decades that followed.

In the 1970s alone, land for Rum River Central Regional Park, Coon Lake County Park, Twin Lakes County Park, Lake George Regional Park and Rice Creek Chain of Lakes Regional Park was purchased.

The county has not stopped developing and redeveloping in the years since.

According to VonDeLinde, in its 50-year history, the county parks has received more than $75 million in federal, state and regional dollars for the park system.

This year through a state outdoor heritage grant, the county acquired the Columbus Lake Conservation Area, which is 258 acres of natural habitat in the eastern part of the county. In 2011, the 550-acre Cedar Creek Conservation Area on the Rum River was purchased with $4.2 million in state funding.

In all, 2,650 acres have been added to the park system from 1995 through 2013, according to VonDeLinde.

The county parks system comes with a host of amenities, including Bunker Beach Water Park, which has the state’s largest outdoor wave pool; Chomonix Golf Course in Rice Creek Chain of Lakes Regional Park; and Bunker Hills Activities Center.

In addition, there are 13 boat launches, four swimming beaches, two large campgrounds (Bunker Hills and Rice Creek), 31 picnic pavilions, a horseback riding stable, dog park, archery range and nature center.

The parks system is also a place where people go cross country skiing, skijoring, snowmobiling, hunting, geocaching, hiking, biking and to take part in other outdoor activities.

Apart from the tennis courts at Kordiak Park, the county park system does not have any sports facilities; that has been left to the cities to provide in their parks, according to VonDeLinde.

“Our vision has been to get people out to connect with nature,” VonDeLinde said.

Future development of the county park system will focus on infilling, notably in the northern and eastern parts of the county, he said.

According to Kordiak, a good deal of the existing county park system is getting old, 20 to 30 years, so it needs regular upgrading.

Those redevelopment projects started some years ago and as part of the process, amenities in those parks have been improved, Kordiak said.

An example of that has been camper cabins being added to the campgrounds, he said.

“We have a wealth of outdoor opportunities for people,” Kordiak said.

According to VonDeLinde, the parks and recreation department is putting more emphasis on natural resource management, for example, removing invasive plant species in the parks and replacing them with plants and grasses that are native to the area.

“Anoka County is very ecologically diversified,” he said.

“It’s at the nexus of three eco systems – prairie, conifer and deciduous forests.”

The Anoka County Board Tuesday passed a resolution recognizing the Anoka County park system’s 50th anniversary and the “early contributions of Albert A. Kordiak.”

One of the largest park systems in the state, it hosts more than 3.8 million visitors a year.

The county board resolution “appreciates the vision Albert A. Kordiak demonstrated during his career as an Anoka County commissioner, understanding the great benefit and recreational opportunities that a natural resource based park system provides to its citizens.”

Peter Bodley is at peter.bodley@ecm-inc.com

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