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They stepped off the city sidewalk in high heels and sandals, loafers and wingtips, carefully navigating a wide swath of dirt dotted with dandelions and tufts of grass.

Standing in blazing sunlight in the heart of downtown, the group of St. Paul leaders donned hard hats and slung golden shovels Thursday morning to kick off construction at Rice Park.

To an audience of two dozen, Mayor Melvin Carter tied the Rice Park revamp back to his campaign promise to make St. Paul a better city for every resident.

“The incredible revitalization that we’re doing at Rice Park means that our children and our grandchildren, and their children, are going to get a chance to come downtown whenever they want and see a beautiful, stunning reminder of what we can do when we all work together,” he said.

Rice Park is undergoing a $2.42 million renovation that will include expanded gardens, new walkways and ambient lighting, as well as irrigation and electrical system improvements. The park is expected to be closed through October.

The project started about four years ago, after members of the St. Paul Garden Club noticed the 1.6-acre park “was looking pretty shabby,” and raised money to kick-start the renovation process, said garden club President Marge Hols. The city then put together a plan for improving the park, which was the city’s first public space when donated in 1849.

Private donors and local organizations, including the garden club, the St. Paul Parks Conservancy and the Rice Park Association have raised a little more than $1 million to pay for the upgrade. The city will cover the rest.

“This is our front yard,” said Amy Mino, Rice Park Association chairwoman. “We feel very, very, very strongly about it looking as beautiful as it can be.”

Once their remarks were done, the speakers and others, including Council Member Rebecca Noecker, whose ward includes downtown, and Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm lined up to pose for photos with their hard hats and shovels.

“Are we really digging, or what are we going to do?” Carter asked.

Then they stomped their shovels into the ground, and the crowd broke into applause.