After more than 20 years of planning and two years of pulling together an alliance of public and private financial support, 70 acres of prime bluffland along the Mississippi River have become the newest addition to Maplewood's green space.

The city has taken ownership of the parcel between Hwy. 61 and Interstate 694 for $2.2 million. It will be an integral part of the Fish Creek Natural Area Greenway that stretches from Carver Lake in Woodbury, through meadows and forests in Maplewood, to the Mississippi River in St. Paul.

It is a significant piece of land, a natural habitat adjacent to Ramsey County's 130-acre Fish Creek Open Space that eventually will lead to creation of a hiking trail along the creek, a hidden gem that everyone will soon be able to enjoy more fully, said DuWayne Konewko, director of Maplewood's Parks and Recreation Department.

The creek carves a narrow channel through bedrock, an area known locally as the Fish Creek Canyon.

Maplewood's purchase, he added, represents a true collaborative effort from diverse interests — and a commitment by Maplewood residents going back to 1993, when the city became the first in the nation to pass a referendum raising public money to purchase open space.

Maplewood had been interested in adding the Fish Creek property to its open space for the past 20 years, but it was privately owned and didn't come up for sale until 2011 — when prices had gone up considerably. The city still jumped at the chance to buy it, but needed time to line up the money, Konewko said.

"As you can imagine, fundraising is not an easy thing to do," he said, but the City Council was supportive. "The staff brought this idea to the council, and they said, 'Let's give it a shot.' They went with it right away."

The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit that supports environmental preservation and economic development, agreed to buy the property and hold on to it for two years until financing could be put together.

"When a community comes together like this, it shows how much they value open space and places to enjoy the great outdoors," said Clint Miller, field representative for the Conservation Fund.

$300,000 still needed

"It's been a long road," Konewko said, but the deadline helped push the effort along to gather public and private funds.

"Grants today are very competitive," he added. "Ten years ago, when you applied for a grant, you were kind of always assured of getting at least something. Now you can write grant after grant, and you never know. The landscape has changed considerably."

In the end, the $2.2 million was raised from several sources: Ramsey County and the city each contributed $425,000; the 3M Foundation (the company is based in Maplewood) donated $200,000; the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District added $175,000; a grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources added $500,000, and the Friends of the Mississippi and other private groups also made donations.

The city is not quite over the hump, and still needs roughly $300,000 to complete the deal, Konewko said.

The city is hoping to get the last chunk from the Legislature in its bonding bill next session. Like many other projects in the last session, it was taken off the funding list.

Now that the city has the land, Konewko said, it can begin putting into place plans that began in 2010 by a new city commission overseeing the greenway. Twenty acres of the property will be deeded over to Ramsey County; the remainder will be jointly managed by the city and county, including the development of the new trails.