For years, St. Paul has been exploring grand plans to better connect its residents with the Mississippi River. Now, the city is asking the state for $20 million to help make one of those dreams a reality.

The City Council on Wednesday approved a ranked list of projects seeking a total of more than $70 million from Minnesota's 2022 bonding bill, including a request for funds to build a recreation and environmental education center on a riverbank at the Watergate Marina in Crosby Farm Regional Park.

The proposed River Learning Center would offer educational programming, walking tours, rental equipment for outdoor recreation and other opportunities for visitors of all ages to engage with the area's history and natural resources, said Mary deLaittre, executive director of the nonprofit Great River Passage Conservancy, which advocates and fundraises for capital projects along St. Paul's 17-mile stretch of the Mississippi River.

The site, part of a nationally designated river and recreation area, also would host the National Park Service's Mississippi River headquarters.

"We have this amazing resource in the national park along the river that is sort of underappreciated," said Russ Stark, St. Paul's chief resilience officer and a member of the Great River Passage Conservancy's board. "We need a better facility to show people how they can access the river."

The conservancy expects to seek proposals from design firms in the fall, which will help determine the exact costs of construction and restorative landscaping on 25 acres near the river, deLaittre said. The timing of the project will depend on how much public and private funding it receives.

"The partnership with the state is critical. This is something that is truly a state and regional asset," said St. Paul Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm, who also serves on the conservancy's board.

In 2020, Gov. Tim Walz included $3 million to cover design and site planning costs for the learning center in his proposed capital budget, but that money did not make the final bonding bill passed by the Legislature. Private donors stepped in to help the Great River Passage Conservancy to afford design costs in the meantime.

"This is a very exciting step," deLaittre said. "Our vision for St. Paul is to create the river capital, where we bring the river from the edge to the center of public life."

St. Paul's top bonding priority is a $23.4 million request to rebuild the eastbound Kellogg Boulevard RiverCentre bridge. The city also is seeking $12 million for the orangutan exhibit at Como Zoo and $16 million to build a community center in the North End neighborhood.

The state received nearly $5.5 billion in requests from state agencies and local governments seeking bonding dollars in 2022, according to a letter from Minnesota Department of Management and Budget.

Walz will submit his proposed capital budget to the Legislature by January.

Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478