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Duluth launches new online park reservation system

Reserving a Duluth city park or a field for an event just got a little easier. This week, the city plans to officially roll out a new online reservation system designed to make it simpler than ever to book a park for a wedding, a special event, a...

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A wedding takes place at the Rose Garden Gazebo in Duluth's Leif Erickson Park in August 2009. The city of Duluth is rolling out a new online reservation system for parks this week. File / News Tribune

Reserving a Duluth city park or a field for an event just got a little easier.

This week, the city plans to officially roll out a new online reservation system designed to make it simpler than ever to book a park for a wedding, a special event, a group picnic, some friendly competition or any other occasion.

The online reservation service actually launched quietly last week, but Lindsay Dean, manager of Duluth's parks and recreation department, believes it's now ready for prime time.

No longer will people need to obtain paper forms and submit them to City Hall. Payments also can be made electronically now. Where Duluth asked for people to pay via cash or check in the past, they can now go online and charge the cost to a credit card, using a secure service.

The new system has been more than a year in the making. The city sought requests for proposals in November of 2015 and received responses from nine different vendors.

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After reviewing those offers, Duluth chose to go with an outfit called Rec1, based out of Alpharetta, Ga. The company has since been acquired by CivicPlus, a firm providing more than 2,500 local units of government across the nation with online services.

Duluth has agreed to pay Rec1 a monthly fee of $100 or 1 percent of revenues collected through the new online reservation service - whichever sum is larger - in return for designing and helping to administer the system.

Dean said the city collected about $70,000 in reservation fees and permits last year and has conservatively budgeted to earn an additional $3,000 in 2017, but she's confident in the department's ability to beat that number with its new online reservation system and a revised fee schedule in 2017.

"In terms of better reflecting our maintenance and admin costs, we've made modest increases in private event permits, special event permits, alcohol permits and wedding permits. Some of these haven't been updated in about a decade," Dean told the Duluth City Council recently.

This year, for the first time, Duluth residents will pay less to reserve park facilities than out-of-towners. Dean said this is to recognize the support locals already provide the parks and recreation department via a levy.

For instance, a Duluth resident can reserve a park structure at a cost of $65 for a half day or $100 to for a full day. Meanwhile, a nonresident would pay $100 for a half day or $200 for a full-day rental. Weddings would cost more, depending on the venue, but again out-of-towners would pay a premium of 40 to 60 percent.

"The fees that we collect for permits don't come anywhere close to offsetting the actual cost of administering and maintaining the parks for events. So this is a way of recognizing that nonresidents are not taxpayers. They're not contributing to the (parks and recreation) levy," Dean said.

She noted that the majority of wedding permits Duluth issued last year went to nonresidents.

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"Part of the reason is that it is so expensive to get married in a Twin Cities park," said Dean, adding that Duluth's pricing structure will maintain that competitive edge.

Duluth's parks often are booked for weddings a full year in advance. The new system currently is accepting wedding reservations through 2018. Reservations for other non-wedding events can be scheduled online only through the current calendar year.

Dean expressed optimism the city's revenue from reservations and permits is poised to grow.

"Over the last five years, the number of permits we've issued has gone up every year. And now, given that the system makes it so easy to get a permit, I would anticipate that it will continue to go up," said.

Reserving a Duluth park facility or field previously often necessitated a trip to City Hall, which is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., or sending written correspondence by mail.

The new online booking can be found on the city website at duluthmn.gov/parks/reservations-permits . The site offers virtual tours, details about capacities, amenities, maps, scheduled maintenance projects, parking and availability. At least five days' advance notice are needed to reserve a building for a gathering and a minimum of two weeks of lead time is required for a wedding.

The reservation season begins after Memorial Day, when the park department's staff typically is bolstered with seasonal workers. Events can be scheduled outside that time frame by special arrangement, but Dean said maintenance support services offered by the city will be of a lesser level during off-peak months.

Permits generally are required for private events involving 40 people or more. Events that are open to the public or that involve amplification equipment require permits, regardless of the anticipated size.

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Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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