The name of the 160-acre park on the west bank of the Mississippi River falls short of its scenic grandeur. And for some, its name — Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park — is tinged with uncomfortable racial overtones, even though its original inspiration was the masked mammal still common in the area.
There’s another issue with the name, however — it’s confusing. The park is not in Coon Rapids at all, but in Brooklyn Park.
Now the Three Rivers Park District, at the urging of Brooklyn Park, is exploring whether to change the park’s name as part of a multimillion-dollar makeover to establish it as a regional destination. The proposed name: Great River Regional Park.
The park, which draws 350,000 visitors a year, recently had its dam shored up by the state, which wants to keep invasive carp out of the upper Mississippi. Brooklyn Park leaders say it could draw even more people with a different name.
The city, which has one of the most diverse populations in the state, owns 90 acres of parkland next to Three Rivers holdings. Together they are drafting a master plan for the park, with ambitious talk of adding canoe sharing, a zip line, treehouses, a nature-themed playground and a new nature center.
“A more regional name makes sense,” said Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeff Lunde. “Plus, it’s a rebranding effort. It’s going to be a new park. We want people to think about it differently.”
Brooklyn Park City Council Member John Jordan said he supports changing the park’s name to Great River. While the Coon Rapids name has benign origins, it’s “definitely not tourist-friendly,” he said.
“I think [Great River] is a good name,” Jordan said. “It gives it a big name, one that’s worthy of the river and park it represents. Along with the updated dam, the coming changes ... could make the park into the significant destination it should be. For years it’s been a forgotten park in the system, but with a lot of potential.”
This isn’t the first time the name Coon Rapids has spurred talk of a change. In 2005, then-Coon Rapids City Council Member and businessman Joe Sidoti suggested that a name change would improve the city’s image and vitality. His idea sparked a spirited debate, but ultimately the notion was dismissed.
Coon Rapids Mayor Jerry Koch said on Friday that a name change for Brooklyn Park’s park makes sense.
“I have no issue with them changing the name of the park on that side,” he said. “Frankly, it’s been confusing to me.”
Kelly Grissman, a Three Rivers director of planning, said a new name and a makeover would raise the profile of the park, which features a dramatic pedestrian walkway across the river just feet above the newly rebuilt dam.
“We want a fresh start,” she said. “It’s going to be a new park when it’s all done.”
A new name would also eliminate geographical confusion, Grissman said.
A different park on the east side of the river — in Coon Rapids — is also called Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park. It’s owned and operated by Anoka County. While the Three Rivers park is free, Anoka County charges for parking. And if a visitor show ups on the wrong side of the river, it takes 15 minutes by car or foot to get to the other side.
“People are missing weddings. … It’s just confusing to people,” Grissman said.
The Three Rivers Park District board would have to approve the name change.
Seeking new visitors
Three Rivers has spent the past year speaking with more than 1,000 community residents about its plans to remake the park. Based on that feedback, Grissman and others are drafting a plan that will include a new nature center, a nature-themed children’s play area, more picnicking spots, an elevated walking path and treehouses along the riverbanks to draw visitors into the tree canopy. There is also interest in making it easier to dip toes into the water by building small piers along the shoreline.
In addition to generally upgrading the park, the enhancements are also intended to attract new visitors, particularly immigrants and people of color who might not have ventured there before.
Even with new amenities, the river, including the walking bridge that spans it, will continue to be the showstopper, Grissman said.
“It’s a wild place in the middle of the city,” she said. “You have all the power of the river. You can see it, you can hear it. If you are on the walking bridge, you can feel the mist. … It’s powerful.”