No grant for Houlton Farm, but owners still have hope for a park

by Joni Astrup

Associate Editor

The city of Elk River has received word that it will not get a $2 million grant that would have helped pave the way for the Houlton Farm to become a park.

The notification came from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

John Houlton, who represents the farm’s ownership group, said he was very surprised by the news.

A view of the river from the Houlton Farm. Photo courtesy of the City of Elk River
A view of the river from the Houlton Farm. Photo courtesy of the City of Elk River

“This is a setback, but it is by no means the end of the road in trying to make this happen,” he said of efforts to turn the farm into a park.

He said they will continue to market the farm and see what happens, but their preference remains that the farm becomes a “community resource.”

The city had applied for the grant with assistance from The Conservation Fund, which has had a lead role in trying to buy the farm for park land. The Conservation Fund is a national nonprofit that helps government agencies and other nonprofits acquire land and has been working with the Houlton Farm’s ownership group. The city has envisioned the farm as a nature-preserve-type park.

Steve Hobbs, Minnesota project director for The Conservation Fund, said the farm’s owners were very gracious in giving them time to put the deal together.

But he said The Conservation Fund can only move forward with the purchase of property like the Houlton Farm when they are pretty certain there will be funding available to repay the organization. While the $2 million grant would not have fully funded the farm purchase, it would have allowed the deal to move forward, he said.

The grant ran into funding difficulties that stemmed from last year’s legislative session.

The Houlton farm in Elk River. Photo courtesy of the City of Elk River
The Houlton farm in Elk River. Photo courtesy of the City of Elk River

Hobbs said the state Legacy parks fund the city was seeking the grant from had less than half of the $7.2 million to $7.3 million it has in a normal year because the 2013 Legislature earmarked some of that funding for other projects.

The remaining grant money that was available — about $3 million — went to three projects that were in the last stages of land acquisition.

“It was kind of heartbreaking because we were next in line,” Hobbs said of the Houlton Farm. “In any normal year we would have gotten the full funding.”

At this point, it appears there is nothing to stop the city from reapplying for the grant next year if the Houlton Farm is still available.

“It’s still a very highly considered project, and it’s not a one-time grant. It’s out there every year. Most likely next year they’ll have their full allotment of grant funding, and we should be in very strong position again,” Elk River City Administrator Cal Portner said.

The Houlton Farm is outlined in red.
The Houlton Farm boundary is outlined in red.

Hobbs agreed that if the land is still available in another year, he is willing to give the grant another try. He also has been looking for other funding sources.

“We like to call ourselves pathological optimists,” he said.

The source of the grant money is the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which was approved by Minnesota voters in 2008. It increased the state sales tax and distributes that money into separate funds for clean water, outdoor heritage, arts and cultural heritage, and parks and trails.

Ironically, Hobbs said in many ways the Houlton Farm is the “poster child” of Legacy projects because it has historic value, natural resource value and recreational opportunities and it benefits clean water.

“I think when the voters voted for the Legacy Amendment, they were thinking of projects kind of like this,” he said.

The 335-acre farm is located west of downtown near the Orono Dam. It has frontage on both the Mississippi and Elk rivers.

The largest cottonwood tree recorded in Sherburne County is on the farm. It also is home to a barn that dates to the Civil War era.