by Dennis Dalman
The outdoor basketball court in The Wilds neighborhood of Sartell will stay where it is.
At its July 13 meeting, the Sartell City Council voted unanimously to keep the court as is rather than moving it to Watab Park as once proposed.
The council’s action apparently put an end to some rancorous, emotional controversy in recent weeks, a controversy that raised the question of whether racial bias had caused the proposal to move the court.
A group of young black men from St. Cloud had been using the court because their usual court had been closed due to the pandemic crisis. Some neighbors had complained to council members about loud music, foul language and intimidation from the players.
At the June 22 council meeting, it was proposed to move the court to Watab Park and replace it with a half-sized basketball court and a pickleball court. In the planning process, those courts had earlier been proposed for Watab Park.
At the July 13 council meeting, a Sartell resident, Sarah Ufearo, spoke during the open forum portion of the meeting. Ufearo said she is concerned about prejudice in the community and opposes moving the basketball court.
Council member Tim Elness said the court should remain in The Wilds. Mayor Ryan Fitzthum agreed, noting city staff has made the same recommendation. Council member Jeff Kolb said the noise-and-nuisance issues have seemed to diminished or stopped, which is good, he added, because that was “our big concern.”
Fitzthum suggested in the near future the council should consider installing signage in The Wilds park because there have been driving complaints. A portable bathroom might also be a future option.
When moving the basketball court to Watab Park was first proposed at the June 22 council meeting, council member Mike Chisum had vigorously opposed the move. He said it was being proposed for specious reasons based on just a few complaints.
At the July 13 meeting, Chisum offered an apology to city staff who may have been hurt or offended by his comments at the June 22 meeting. Chisum said nothing done was improper, nor was there any ill will, malice or improper motivations during the controversy.
“I apologize to anybody I might have hurt or offended,” he said.
Much good has come from the controversy, Chisum said. The players at the court have made good efforts to turn down the volume of music and tone down their language, and those “substantial efforts,” said Chisum, resulted in fewer complaints.
Another positive outcome, he added, is that young people (students, recent graduates) have come forward with social issues that need to be addressed in Sartell. Chisum noted they have told personal stories or relayed incidents they had witnessed regarding social ills, such as racist comments.
“The stories touched the soul of this community,” he said. “And those stories won’t be forgotten. Everyone is welcome to use our parks and our public amenities.”
Young people, he added, are a force for good change.
“The blessing of all of this is Sartell has been made to ask itself some hard questions and to look at some unpleasant realities,” Chisum said. “Our young people are calling us to be better. Dialogue has started and will continue, and change will happen. We will become a stronger and more united and more welcoming community.”