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Brainerd riverwalk project flowing to life

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A treasure has laid 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 Brainerd City Council named building a riverwalk as one of its strategic goals. Since, City Planner Mark Ostgarden has been pushing the project forward.

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

The concept of a riverwalk isn’t new to the city. 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 determined to make the riverwalk come to life.

The basic 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, gatherings and art displays. A place to have lunch, take an afternoon stroll.

How it all began

The idea of a riverwalk has been tossed around for years, but first started showing growth in 2009 when an ad hoc committee, through the Blandin Foundation, helped lay out a basic vision plan.

Eventually, as funds dried up, so did the riverwalk concept.

A breath of life

The city recently partnered with The Center for Rural Design (CRD) at the University of Minnesota to draft a vision plan for the project.

There’s a lot of people with a range of different ideas on what a riverwalk should look like, Ostgarden said. That’s why there needs to be some sort of go-to plan.

The first step for CRD is creating a steering committee, made up of community leaders and residents.

The Mississippi River Partnership Plan steering committee will give input to the development of the project, identify priorities or risks, monitor the timeline and quality of the project as it develops and provide advice throughout. The steering committee will make recommendations to the council for final approval on actions in the walkway or development project.

There are ideas being tossed around, but nothing is settled on yet, said Steve Roos, project manager at CRD.

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

The CRD study won’t be the master plan, but it will help get everyone on the same page. At least that’s why Ostgarden hopes.


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

“Until now, this riverwalk has never been identified as a priority,” he said. Getting some people to see the value could prove challenging.

Then there’s the cost of any project.

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

A master plan won’t come cheap, and neither will the potential construction of the site.

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

Other challenges include:

• With the downtown a few blocks away, officials must think of a way to better connect the two.

• The site of the possible river walk is a floodplain, so there’s a misconception that you can’t build anything there. Officials must identify any restrictions, but say building is OK.

• Some people 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 community and future,” Thorbeck said.

An ignored river

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

Thorbeck sees the potential, both for residents and those looking to move to the area or pay a visit.

People just have to connect to the river, he said.

Once they make that connection, there’s opportunity for economic growth for businesses, neighborhoods and community groups, said Randy Thoreson, with the National Park Service’s Rivers and Trails Program. Thoreson got involved a couple of years ago and has helped bring in other key groups to the discussion.

“I see the pieces and it excited me,” he said. “I see how this can all work together.”

It’s a chance to invest in economic development, Ostgarden said. It’s an investment for local residents first, he said, and an added bonus of attracting people to the community, both to live or spend money.

It’s an opportunity to create an “urban feel” around the river, he said. It opens up opportunities for markets, art fairs and for local residents and visitors to enjoy the beauty of the river.

For decades, the river has been seen as a barrier, Ostgarden said.

“The money was in the lakes. The thought was why bother with the river?” he said.

But it’s that majestic body of water that is one of the main attractions throughout other communities in the state, he said.

Building a riverwalk will connect businesses, the downtown and revitalization with the river.

Thorbeck says Brainerd is losing out by not taking advantage of the river.

“Brainerd is keystone city in the larger lakes region. Rethinking how it connects to the river can help clarify its role and opportunity for the greater economical and social impact,” he said.

Both Roos and Thoreson say the city isn’t advertising its river enough.

“It doesn’t seem like people talk about the river much at all,” Roos said.

“There’s no place to stop and look at it when you’re driving,” Thoreson said. “But if you do, it’ll take your breath away.”

JESSICA LARSEN may be reached at or 855-5859. Follow me on Twitter at