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Jessica Larsen, Forum News Service, Published March 08 2014

Riverwalk project flowing to life in Brainerd

BRAINERD, Minn. – A treasure has been hidden in Brainerd for far too long. Winding through the heart of town, the Mississippi River should be showcased, not hidden.

At least that’s what some city and state leaders think.

Late last year, the Brain-erd City Council named building a riverwalk as one of its strategic goals. Since then, City Planner Mark Ostgarden has been push-ing the project forward.

“It’s all about creating a brand, an identity for our-selves,” Ostgarden said. “When people think of Brainerd, they think of lakes. That’s not what Brainerd is. Sure, the sur-rounding communities are abundant with lakes, but Brainerd itself is right on the river.”

The concept of a river-walk isn’t new. It’s a vision that many have built up, lost track of and given up on for years.

This time is different, Ostgarden said. He’s de-termined to make the riverwalk come to life.

The core concept is a 2.5-mile plan for a walkway, starting at Washington Street and continuing to Little Buffalo Creek.

That length could expand in the future, but for now officials are concentrating on that central area.

There could be a plaza, a hub for festivals, gather-ings and art displays. A place to have lunch, take an afternoon stroll.

The idea of a riverwalk has been tossed around for years, but it started show-ing growth in 2009 when an ad hoc committee, through the Blandin Foundation, helped lay out a basic vi-sion plan.

Eventually, as funds dried up, so did the river-walk concept.

The city recently part-nered with the Center for Rural Design at the Uni-versity of Minnesota to draft a new vision plan.

The first step for CRD is creating a steering com-mittee, made up of com-munity leaders and resi-dents.

The Mississippi River Partnership Plan steering committee will provide input on the project’s de-velopment, identify priori-ties or risks, monitor the timeline and quality of the project as it develops, and provide advice throughout. The committee will make recommendations to the council for final approval.

Steve Roos, project man-ager at CRD, said ideas are being tossed around but nothing has been settled on.

Committee members are being sought and the group will start meeting soon.

The CRD study won’t be the master plan, but Ost-garden hopes it will help get everyone on the same page.

‘We can’t think small’

The biggest challenge is getting residents on board, Ostgarden said.

“Until now, this river-walk has never been identi-fied as a priority,” he said, and getting some to see the value could prove difficult.

Then there’s the cost.

“It costs money, but it might cost more in the long run if you do nothing. You might lose people, business opportunity, health opportunity. It’s hard to quantify that,” said CRD Director Dewey Thorbeck.

A master plan won’t come cheap, and neither will the potential construc-tion.

“We can’t think small with this,” Ostgarden said. “It’s an opportunity for us to think big, to upgrade.”

Among other challenges is that site of the potential riverwalk is a floodplain, so there’s a misconception that nothing can be built there. Officials must identi-fy any restrictions, but they say building is OK.

And then there’s the fact that some people just don’t want change.

“It’s not an age issue or education issue as much as it’s just not realizing the river is a great asset and ought to take advantage of – for the good of the com-munity and future,” Thor-beck said.

Thorbeck sees the poten-tial – both for residents and people looking to move to the area or pay a visit.

“The city has ignored the river and the potential for creating higher quality of life,” Thorbeck said.