ST. CLOUD – The Mississippi River winds right through downtown here, yet it's long been difficult for residents to get to the water or even glimpse it — a problem St. Cloud leaders are trying to reverse.
The city opened a new riverside trail last fall and on Monday plans to unveil details to revamp and boost access to the riverfront.
"As of right now, you can't put your feet in the water or fish safely; we want to change that," said Matt Glaesman, community development director. "It's a great amenity for downtown. All of a sudden we're a water destination."
From Brainerd to Winona, Minnesota cities on the river have pivoted in recent years to embrace it and rethink connections to it with new amenities such as trails and plazas. It's part of a broader trend of cities trying to turn back toward the Mississippi after years of rejecting a river that was once largely industrial.
For the first time in St. Cloud, pedestrians can safely access the riverfront on the Beaver Island Trail extension, which opened last fall and extended a trail an eighth of a mile along the river from where it previously ended at the River's Edge Convention Center. Funded mostly by a half-cent sales tax, the trail cost about $7 million — much it spent to add piers along the steep bluffs.
Now the city wants to extend that trail about another mile near the St. Cloud Hospital, a major employer. Four concepts were unveiled for the RiverWalk plan in March. On Monday, the city will present a final draft of the master plan to the City Council. A first phase calls for adding green space, a canoe launch and a trail by narrowing a road — 5th Avenue — which is now often used to park cars.
The situation "is subpar and sometimes it appears ludicrous," said Dave Laliberte, vice chairman of Mississippi Partners, an urban river advocacy group helping to lead the effort. "This is about reclamation of space that was once viewed in very derogatory light. … It's time to champion this world-class river."
A second phase envisions creating two islands by digging a channel through Cathedral High School's football field (if the school would sell the land and relocate the field) to create a "destination park," where people could put their feet in the water, fish, kayak, canoe or use amenities such as an amphitheater.
"There just isn't anything like that that embraces the river in the St. Cloud area," said Marilyn Birkland of the St. Cloud Rotary Club, which is part of the task force. "It's time cities turn their fronts to the river."
No cost estimates have been established for the work. The public will be allowed to comment on the proposal, and the City Council is expected to vote on it in November.
Already, the river trail has increased access, Mayor Dave Kleis said, and more riverfront amenities could boost interest nationally in central Minnesota tourism.
"You may not have heard of St. Cloud, but you have heard of the Mississippi," he said. "The river is the most important river … in the world."
Among other cities, St. Cloud looked to Calgary; Eau Claire, Wis.; Cincinnati; Sioux Falls, S.D., and Duluth for inspiration.
While the RiverWalk would enhance river access, the city also hopes it spurs redevelopment. For instance, it's studying a possible hotel and restaurant to replace a 1970s-era apartment building that sits on prime riverfront. Right now, no hotels or restaurants — or much else — face the river.
"People have always said the city doesn't do as good of a job as it should to embrace the river," Kleis said. "It's an economic opportunity we should fully embrace and take advantage of, something [that] few communities have."