Early funding is falling into place for an ambitious plan to remake the lock and dam beside the Stone Arch Bridge into a public riverfront attraction celebrating Minneapolis’ birthplace.
A nonprofit group, Friends of the Lock & Dam, says it is on the verge of securing more than $5 million in private and public money for its Falls Initiative. It would remake the area that includes the decommissioned Mississippi River lock into a visitor center with boat access, riverfront dining, underground parking and event space.
About half of the Friends’ initial fundraising total — which is just a portion of what will ultimately be needed for the project — would come from a special environmental fund, subject to the Legislature’s approval.
The plan still has to clear a number of hurdles, but it will have a high-profile advocate moving forward. Friends of the Lock & Dam announced this week that former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew would be its new president. Andrew served on the County Board for 16 years in the 1980s and ’90s and ran for mayor of Minneapolis in 2013.
The future of the lock and dam has been in limbo since Congress closed the lock to navigation in 2014 to stop invasive carp from reaching farther upstream. It is still used occasionally to minimize flooding. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is studying what to do with the property.
Andrew said the project would drive a lot of visitors to the riverfront and spur economic development.
“We have this enormous asset — one of the three greatest rivers in the world,” Andrew said. “[The project] will activate a tremendous amount of visitor involvement and people who live in our community to get down to the river, to enjoy it, to appreciate it.”
The effort may soon get a boost from state coffers. A key panel overseeing the Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund, which is funded by the Minnesota Lottery, recommended this summer allocating $2.8 million to the Falls Initiative. About half of that would help pay to acquire the land. Those recommendations must be approved by the Legislature, which reconvenes in February.
Kjersti Monson, who is directing the Falls Initiative, said the state funding recommendation was a big step forward.
“That is a reason for us to start to really coalesce and frankly put more bodies on the ground,” Monson said. “And Mark’s role is so significant in these next steps, because we really believe he will inspire confidence on both the public and private sides.”
The organization has also raised about $2.5 million in private dollars that will be committed to the project regardless of the outcome at the Legislature. The overall project budget is expected to run into the tens of millions of dollars — organizers would not give a specific number. They anticipate that the costs will be split between public and private dollars.
The Friends must also contend with a competing proposal from Crown Hydro to install a hydroelectric generator on the property — which would first require securing the land. Crown Hydro has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to modify a license it was granted in the late 1990s to generate power from the nearby Crown Roller Mill building. Last year that project lost a key grant from Xcel Energy.
Monson said the hydroelectric idea is incompatible with the Falls Initiative, since one of the primary goals is to improve access to the river through kayaking, water taxis or other means. The Minneapolis City Council also prefers the Falls Initiative, having approved a resolution supporting it last year.
“Having that piece of the lock turned into a water intake with that kind of suction would make it unsafe,” Monson said. “It would completely eliminate one of the primary goals for the project, which is to get people on the water and on the central riverfront.”
The Army Corps study is expected to be completed in late spring, before Congress makes the final decision about what to do with the lock and dam property.