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Ryan Bakken, Published April 14 2012

Flood-hit neighborhoods in Grand Forks live on in parks

GRAND FORKS – Tom Reiten and Joan Abraham were the last people to leave the Lincoln Drive neighborhood after the 1997 flood.

The homeowners at 1207 Lincoln Drive held out until 2001, when the dike alignment forced their ouster. It was a sad parting of residents and their real estate, as most were in those times.

The couple’s attachment to their property was stronger than many, however. Four years after the devastation, they not only still lived on their property but also mowed the lawns and trimmed the hedges of former neighbors.

“We wanted to keep things looking nice,” Reiten said about the volunteer yard work.

That’s the same reason that Reiten and other former neighborhood residents are grateful that their former stomping grounds are now the stomping grounds for people flinging a Frisbee, exercising their dogs, eyeing flowers and chewing hot dogs.

The neighborhood is now the home of Lincoln Drive Park, Grand Forks’ biggest, busiest and most versatile park. Pre-flood residents are pleased that their neighborhood is still vibrant and not a ghost town.

“The saddest part of it all would have been if there was nothing here now,” Reiten said from a bench near the park’s wildflower garden.

“This was a vibrant neighborhood, with a cross-section of humanity. Now, the park is, too.”

Residences now tents, campers

Approximately half of Grand Forks’ 800 home buyouts were in the Lincoln Drive neighborhood. In East Grand Forks, approximately half of its 500 buyouts came in the former Sherlock Park neighborhood.

They were the lowest-lying residential areas in the two cities. Now they’re home to the busiest parks.

The Sherlock neighborhood is the campground of the Red River State Recreation Area. The neighborhood had several distinctions beyond being the most flood-prone. The city’s first homes were built there. While it had stately and architecturally significant residences, it also had many of the community’s smaller and less-expensive properties.

And, like in the Lincoln Drive area, former residents such as Helen Senger say the neighbors had a special bond. Senger, 88, and her now-deceased husband, Frank Senger, lived in the neighborhood for their 51 years of marriage.

“There are so many memories,” she said. “It was a close-knit neighborhood with all of the adults about the same age and with so many kids.

“With six boys, we couldn’t afford to go anywhere. We stayed at home and the kids had to make their own fun. And they did.”

Floodwater in 1997 reached a foot from the main floor’s ceiling, resulting in the home being razed. Helen Senger also blames the flood for the death of her husband in 1998. “He had to work so hard,” she said.

Their home at 702 Second St. NW is now Campsite No. 78. The campsite includes a towering yet odd-shaped evergreen, planted by the Sengers when third son Mark, now 55, was born.

“The busy campground reminds me of when all the neighborhood kids played down there,” she said. “Oh my, yes, I like to see the activity there.”

Catherine Johnson, the park manager, knows of the emotional attachment. When some former residents use the campground upon returning to East Grand Forks, they request the ground that used to hold their home. And, she said, one camp site/former home lot is adorned with Christmas decorations every December.

More than nostalgia

The campground value goes beyond nostalgia. It’s also a part of the East Grand Forks economic blueprint.

The city’s first post-flood boost came in September 1999, when the $14 million, 60,000-square-foot Cabela’s opened downtown. Less than a year later, the Minnesota Legislature approved the Red River State Recreation Area, which included a campground within walking distance of the destination retailer.

“We figured it was a good fit because camping people would be interested in Cabela’s merchandise,” Mayor Lynn Stauss said. “And, people could walk from the campground to our entertainment district (on the boardwalk).”

Stauss chuckled when recounting his first idea for revitalizing downtown – attracting a Native American casino. “This is a better fit,” he said.

Visitors to the recreation area have grown from 44,000 in 2005 to 101,000 in 2010. Overnight campers went from 3,700 in 2005 to 19,400 in 2010. Numbers would have grown again in 2011 without the state government shutdown that affected campground traffic for five weeks in the heart of summer.

In addition to residual benefits from the visitors, the city first got a share of the campground’s profit in 2011, which amounted to about $40,000 in its coffers. Expectations are for an annual city take of $50,000 to $75,000, according to Dave Aker, the city’s park and recreation director.

Because the former Sherlock Park neighborhood can’t be protected from flooding, structures couldn’t be built in the area. That left park land as the only option.

“We were fortunate to be able to utilize this area by bringing in tourists,” Stauss said. “The only thing else we could have had there was tall grass filled with mosquitoes.”

GF park also lures visitors

Lincoln Drive Park, like Sherlock, has been a post-flood attraction.

At 120 acres, it is Grand Forks’ second-largest park, behind only the complex that includes the 18-hole King’s Walk Golf Course. Lincoln Drive Park is bigger than the neighboring Lincoln Park Golf Course, a nine-hole layout.

It also has a wide variety of attractions. Although it has standard amenities such as a playground, picnic shelters, sand volleyball courts, horseshoe pits and a skating rink, it also offers newer recreation pursuits such as disc golf, which appeals to teens and young adults, and the dog park.

A sledding hill, groomed cross-country ski trail and Christmas in the Park display also make it a popular winter destination.

“It’s been popular since Day 1, without any advertising,” said John Staley, the Park District director. “People just showed up.”

Some are former Lincoln Drive residents who head for a tree or other landmark that identifies their yard. Or they’ll go up to the park’s flagpole, which is in the exact location as the flagpole at Lincoln Elementary, the neighborhood headquarters for social events and flood-fighting.

Those too-frequent flood-fighting Aprils and the area’s geographical isolation from the rest of the city contributed to it being close-knit, former resident Vince Ames said. That strong emotional attachment made it difficult to leave.

But what’s happened since has helped to make the departure easier to accept.

“It’s exciting to drive down there where our place was and see all these people using it,” Ames said. “It’s very gratifying to see the area, so beautiful and home to so many, being utilized in a positive fashion.

“It’s fun for us to go down there, too.”

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Ryan Bakken is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald.