The Three Rivers Park District, in partnership with Brooklyn Park, is changing the name of Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park to Mississippi Gateway to broaden the park's appeal, differentiate it from the Coon Rapids park on the other side of the river — and rid it of a name that some consider a racist slur.
"We're proud to be the largest, most diverse city in the state," said Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeff Lunde. "So many of our young kids who are from diverse backgrounds, they don't have the historical connection to nature in Minnesota. And so this is really important that we build that."
But more than just a name change is in store for the regional park in Brooklyn Park. A $30 million capital improvement project is planned to add amenities and boost annual visitation to 600,000, making the park more of a metrowide destination. Construction will span several years and depend on securing the remaining funds totaling $8.5 million.
Three Rivers hopes that balance will be part of Gov. Tim Walz's 2020 bonding bill. The park district has never before asked legislators for assistance with a project, said Commissioner Jennifer DeJournett, which she said reflects its scope and importance.
"It elevates this park to the beauty to which it commands and also puts it to the right brand as with all the rest of our Three Rivers parks," she said.
The chance to rebuild a suburban-urban park, she added, rarely comes along: "It's a park that's just so beautiful that it needs an extreme park makeover."
Funding for the makeover is divided among Three Rivers ($13 million), Brooklyn Park ($4.3 million) and the National Park Service ($2.15 million), which operates the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area along the stretch of the river flowing through the Twin Cities. Officials also expect $1.6 million in a federal transportation grant and a $400,000 grant from Hennepin County.
Wilderness in the city
Two versions of Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park have coexisted for years on either side of the Mississippi, one in Coon Rapids run by Anoka County and the other in Brooklyn Park, operated by Three Rivers and the city.
Officials with the western park have been mulling over a master plan and name change for some time. In 2014, they were leaning toward Great River Regional Park, but community input led them to Mississippi Gateway. Coon Rapids' park on the east bank will keep its name.
Coon Rapids Mayor Jerry Koch said it "makes perfect sense" for Brooklyn Park to rebrand its park. Koch said he once wound up on the wrong side of the river when attending his twin sons' cross-country time trial.
"This will make it so much better for everyone," he said. "When on both sides of the river the park has the same name, it's very confusing. Who would think you have to drive to Brooklyn Park to go to the Coon Rapids Regional Dam Park?"
Coon Rapids has considered rebranding the city itself. A 1968 referendum to change the name of the city failed when about three-fourths of voters said no. In 2006, a public protest greeted then-City Council Member Joe Sidoti's proposal to choose a name that "reflects the vibrancy of this community" rather than a "hick town" using a derogatory word for black people. The proposal was withdrawn.
Local name changes embracing inclusivity aren't new. Following the lead of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the state Department of Natural Resources made Bde Maka Ska the official name of the former Lake Calhoun, replacing the name of a Southern slaveholder with the lake's original Dakota title.
Minnesota Historical Society officials are seeking public feedback on whether to rename Historic Fort Snelling after the Dakota term for the area, Bdote. There was a failed attempt earlier this year to rename four University of Minnesota buildings associated with U officials said to have enacted discriminatory policies.
The Metropolitan Council has made a mission of bridging the gap in park usage for people of color and creating accessible amenities. The first phase of Mississippi Gateway's construction, replacing parking lots and existing trails, is complete. Three Rivers spokesman Tom Knisely said the district hopes to start phase two in 2020, with a grand opening tentatively set for spring 2025.
New park features will include an elevated walkway over the marshes, where visitors can get a bird's-eye view of the flood plain. There will be learning labs, a warming house, playgrounds and picnic shelters, as well as an improved boat launch and off-leash dog area.
"You can stand on the shores and you can watch osprey catching fish, you can go fishing, you can wander through the park and have that feeling of just being in the wilderness even though you're right in the city, which I think is really special," said outdoor education supervisor Patty Maher.
Said Lunde, the Brooklyn Park mayor: "We're trying to get people to understand that there's lots of fun things to do and so many of our youth never get the chance. So we're trying to change that."