The cars whizzing across the Laurel Street Bridge can't view the beauty below. Lush riverbanks, shimmering water, turtles on the sandbar. They see just a small, green marker: Mississippi River.

There are even fewer signs of the river downtown. No arrows leading to trails. No views from any restaurants.

Brainerd, long known as a gateway to the area's lakes, has neglected the body of water within it, said City Planner Mark Ostgarden. "The river was, for years, viewed as something you had to cross to get to the lakes."

No longer. Like a growing number of Minnesota cities, Brainerd is rethinking its stretch of the Mississippi, planning a river walk, a plaza and better trail connections. St. Cloud, where the river was once "rejected and forgotten," in the words of Mayor Dave Kleis, is turning to face it — building a key trail extension behind the recently expanded and renamed River's Edge Convention Center. Farther south, Winona is starting what could become a $3 million overhaul of a riverside park that is a cement strip of its former self.

"We used to view rivers as these sewers, where we would dump our waste, or they were industrial," said Prof. Thomas Fisher, the Dayton Hudson Land Grant Chair in Urban Design at the University of Minnesota. "Nobody wanted to be by them; they were smelly.

"And that's changed. The industry is now largely gone, and lots of cities are discovering that their water … is a huge asset for them."

Metropolises such as Minneapolis and St. Paul have been turning toward the Mississippi for years — with mixed success — but more recently, smaller cities have begun breaking down the barriers to their riverfront, hoping to bring tourists and persuade younger generations to stay or settle.

That work is urgent in Brainerd, population 13,500, Ostgarden said, because nearly 80 percent of people who work here live elsewhere, according to U.S. Census data. While a Hwy. 371 bypass eased congestion, it also allowed tourists to skip the city on their way to the lakes. (Neighboring Baxter now claims the "gateway to the Brainerd Lakes Area" title.)

"When people say they're going to Brainerd, they're not going to Brainerd," Ostgarden said. "We've got an identity crisis."

'Good places to hide'

Growing up on this city's north side, Don Gorham spent his days by the river, "doing all the things you do — building forts, carrying on, trying to build rafts that would sink right away, which is probably good news." Later, he continued to "find good places to hide by the river," he said.

But today, Gorham, 53, wishes it wasn't so hidden.

As co-chair of the Riverfront Steering Committee, he contributed to a thick plan, completed in May, that divides 2 miles of riverfront into three sections. Closest to the business district, the riverfront would be more developed, with a plaza and river walk — a place for festivals. Farther south, the area would become more parklike, fit for family gatherings. Then the river would move into acreage donated by the local Rotary, remaining a little wild.

"We see it as a regional system — as opposed to building a little river walk or a little park," Gorham said. The Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation recently awarded the city a three-year $100,000 grant to hire a coordinator for the plan's next steps.

But some residents question whether the city ought to spend money on the river when there are other needs. The plan has also exposed the tension between developing and protecting the riverfront. Council Member Mary Koep, the only one to vote against the plan, argued that goes too far. Rather than gunning for commercial development, the city ought to be keeping the river in its natural state, she said. Plus, she "doesn't believe for a minute" that residents and visitors are unaware of the river and its existing trails.

"People know it's here," Koep said. "And it's here long before us and long after us. It's our job to preserve that river, not ours to destroy with garbage and beer cans and people using it for a toilet."

But Gorham believes that by creating a few vistas and putting down just a bit of pavement, residents will be able to better appreciate the river.

"People say, 'Do you want to have all these people tromping around your beautiful area?' " he said, dodging poison ivy on what he hopes could become a clearer, more connected trail. "Yeah, I do. I think people are more apt to preserve something if they know it well."

A pricey trail on the edge

Sixty miles south along the same river, in St. Cloud, a 110-ton crane on a barge in the water slowly put another piling into place onshore. Paul Spaulding brought his wheelchair to the edge of the nearby bridge and peered down. Spaulding lives a block from the construction of this $8.4 million trail extension and swings by often.

"It's interesting how they put it all together," Spaulding said. The longtime resident thinks the trail is a good idea, he added. "It gets people connected to the river a little more."

By the time the project is completed next year, a staircase will lead visitors down from the convention center, and a bike and pedestrian bridge will bring them beneath two bridges.

"So if you're at a convention, there would be a natural desire to get out and walk the trail," said Mayor Kleis. He also predicts that it will boost development north of the convention center, bringing businesses that offer kayaks and water taxis.

While St. Cloud State University started connecting its campus to the river years ago, the city as a whole ignored it until recently. New condos tout the view, but the older restaurant closest to the river looks out over its parking lot, instead.

Which is ironic, Kleis noted, because the river "basically built the city."

Photos of Winona at the turn of the 20th century show a city facing its riverfront. In one sepia shot, a steamboat docks while dozens of people stroll along a park of winding trails and trees. But a flood in the 1960s transformed Riverside Park into Levee Park.

Knowing its past, "I've always thought the park could be better than it is," said Mayor Mark Peterson, who is also executive director of the Winona County Historical Society.

But residents worried about the safety of a 2014 proposal to open up the wall that separates the park and the water. "That didn't go over well here," said Frank Pomeroy, former police chief and chairman of a committee focused on the park's renovation. So a new plan works around the levee — creating a grand entrance from downtown, a performance space and a play area. It depends on getting land from the railroad and could tie into coming work on the new Winona Bridge.

"We have an opportunity here to reclaim a little more of our riverfront," Peterson said.

A railroad town

Cities such as Stillwater grew up around their riverfront, but Brainerd was "more of a railroad town," said Steve Roos, senior research fellow in the Center for Rural Design at the University of Minnesota, which prepared the city's riverfront plan. So its downtown developed near what was a major rail yard.

"That's the relationship," Roos said. It also means that "the river, for the most part, is pretty undisturbed through Brainerd," he said. "It offers the city a lot of natural, scenic and recreational opportunities."

On a recent afternoon, Krista Soukup and five kids biked along a trail through Rotary Riverside Park, 38 acres donated to the city in 2012. The girls pedaled up to a little lookout, pushed down their kickstands and ran to the river's edge.

Soukup discovered the trail "by chance," she said, not knowing at first where it went or that it looped. The trail, like the river, is "undervalued and underused." Making it easier to get to is important to Brainerd families, she said, especially those without lake homes.

"We have all these beautiful lakes, we do," she said. "But I think the average child in Brainerd doesn't have access to those resources."

Soukup glanced down at her two daughters and their friend, who were investigating the logs and grass. Suddenly, it got quiet, as their blond heads grew close, looking down.

"Mom, it's a frog!" one of them cried, as they scrambled back up the riverbank. "We named it Pam!"

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168