The cars whizzing across the Laurel Street Bridge in Brainerd, Minnesota can’t view the beauty below. Lush riverbanks, shimmering water, turtles on the sandbar. They see just a small, green marker: Mississippi River.
There are even fewer signs of the river downtown. No arrows leading to trails. No views from any restaurants.
Brainerd, long known as a gateway to the area’s lakes, has neglected the body of water within it, said City Planner Mark Ostgarden. “The river was, for years, viewed as something you had to cross to get to the lakes.”
No longer. Like a growing number of Minnesota cities, Brainerd is rethinking its stretch of the Mississippi, planning a river walk, a plaza and better trail connections.
St. Cloud, where the river was once “rejected and forgotten,” in the words of Mayor Dave Kleis, is turning to face it — building a key trail extension behind the recently expanded and renamed River’s Edge Convention Center. Farther south, Winona is starting what could become a $3 million overhaul of a riverside park that is a cement strip of its former self.
“We used to view rivers as these sewers, where we would dump our waste, or they were industrial,” said Professor Thomas Fisher, the Dayton Hudson Land Grant Chair in Urban Design at the University of Minnesota. “Nobody wanted to be by them; they were smelly. And that’s changed. The industry is now largely gone, and lots of cities are discovering that their water … is a huge asset for them.”
Nearly three years ago, the Brainerd City Council approved a plan that included ideas such as developing a riverwalk, plaza and trail connections. Since then, the plan has been bolstered with new energy and ideas.
“A lot of things are coming together,” says Brainerd Mayor Ed Menk, who’s worked downtown for 44 years. “This is probably the most exciting period of time for this general core area.”
After the river plan was approved in 2015, the city got a three-year, $100,000 grant from the Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation to fund planning efforts.
“The river is the anchor,” says Sheila Haverkamp, executive director of the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation. “It feels like there’s more momentum than ever before.”
Rendering of the elevated Three Bridges Trail envisioned for the Mississippi River area, courtesy of City of Brainerd.