The 25-foot-high dike that wraps around the southern edge of downtown Chaska protects the city from flooding each year, but it also separates the Carver County city from recreational access to the Minnesota River and adjacent national wildlife refuge.

That's something Chaska leaders aim to correct, as part of a downtown master plan that made its debut last week at an open house attended by about 100 people.

One year in the making, the plan seeks to turn a town founded in the 1850s into a 21st-century destination.

"If we stand still, we're going to go backwards," said City Administrator Matt Podhradsky.

There's a sense that time may pass the city by. Newly aligned Hwy. 212 speeds traffic well north of the downtown toward Carver and points farther west. Land in Chaska is filling in with residential developments, with homeowners who commute to jobs in other cities and shop in big-box superstores.

Podhradsky and city Planning and Development Director Kevin Ringwald don't want Chaska's downtown to get overlooked. "We have what most other suburbs would love to have: unique character," Ringwald said.

The historic, cream-colored brick buildings downtown were constructed from local mud and baked in ovens stoked with oak, giving the brick distinctive markings.

"It's got great bones," said consultant Jeff McMenimen, referring to the downtown area in the floodplain of the Minnesota River. "There are whole sections of streets that are very attractive. We're trying to build upon the assets they have but look for opportunities for new things to happen."

McMenimen is director of design for Hoisington Koegler Group, hired by the city for $83,000 to work on the master plan with advice from a 15-member task force.

The plan would restore historic buildings and make Chaska's downtown more pedestrian-friendly by narrowing streets and adding planters, benches and other furnishings.

It identifies three specific areas, called "catalyst redevelopment sites," that could be improved. Fireman's Park, next to a now-abandoned industrial site, could be restored and expanded for recreation. The block across the street from Chaska's picturesque city park and gazebo could be redeveloped with small retail and townhouses. And an area along half of the 2.1-mile levee could become a riverfront district with new housing.

One major concern is the busy traffic on Chestnut Street, or state Hwy. 41, which bisects the downtown commercial hub and crosses the river to the south. McMenimen called the highway a "double-edged sword" because it provides traffic that's the lifeblood of small businesses, but in excessive amounts becomes a nuisance and a barrier for pedestrians.

Robert Roepke, lifelong Chaska resident and mayor from 1984 to 2002, said that because the city is a major river crossing, it must deal "with all the grain and gravel and garbage trucks up and down the main street." That may change in the decade ahead, he said, as new roads and highway bypasses are debated and built to accommodate the rapidly growing areas to the west.

Roepke said that Chaska is fortunate to have some jobs as the county seat, and with the right kind of strategic planning, could attract other types of businesses interested in the city's location, riverfront character and charm.

Another part of the plan focuses on a 12-acre abandoned lumberyard site and 8 acres of under-utilized school property that could be marketed for new businesses.

"Bigger sites near any downtowns are hard to come by, so these present future opportunities," Ringwald said.

One of the most unusual aspects of Chaska is its proximity to nature, and the opportunities for bird-watching, hiking, canoeing and other activities near an established downtown area.

"It's adjacent to a 14,000-acre wildlife refuge, which is pretty phenomenal when you think about it," said McMenimen.

Podhradsky said the city intends to build more connections to the refuge, and wants to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on developing trailhead areas within walking distance of the downtown, or from its athletic park, known as one of the best small-town baseball fields in the area.

Building those trail links will dovetail with the city's 10-year, $27 million plan for reconstruction of all downtown roads, which got underway in 2010, Podhradsky said. The streets are a century old, he said, and contain no drains for storm water runoff.

"We can't look at this as just a one- or two-year issue," he said. "The economy may be bad now, but we can't stand still."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388