Whitewater Affair

The current investigation into rafting the rapids on Minneapolis's stretch of the Mississippi

The sun is hot on the hull of the Betsey Northrop as the double-decker paddleboat makes its way down the Mississippi from Boom Island Park toward the locks. Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and Minneapolis Community Development Agency Director Rebecca Yanisch bear the brunt of the glare, positioning themselves far forward on the bow to present "Development Along the Minneapolis River Banks" to more than 100 Twin Cities architects, lawyers, developers, and real estate suits as part of the Minnesota Shopping Center Association's annual summer outing.

The two take turns pointing out new ventures on the riverbanks to those they hope will answer the come-hither call to develop, develop, develop. There, to the right, is the lucrative Landings, an upscale town-home complex on the site of a former rail yard. Nearby, there's the spiffy Federal Reserve Bank and pedestrian plaza with its mortar still wet, and, down the banks, the unbroken turf where a Historical Society interpretive center is set to be installed in the old Washburn Crosby "A" Mill.

Past the Stone Arch Bridge, the mayor points out a steam plant that serves as the University of Minnesota's main power source. The land adjacent to the plant--owned partly by the university and partly by Northern States Power Company--is gray and rubbled and looks as if at any moment the current might eat it away. Fear not, Sayles Belton declares, gesturing to the wasteland--"A nonprofit group has a plan to put a white-water kayaking area in right there."

Susan George

"Wow, I didn't even know we'd gotten the mayor's attention yet!" exclaims a surprised George Dunn. Dunn and Bill Tilton are a couple of St. Paul attorneys on a mission. This time their battle is to be waged not in a courtroom but on the riverfront. The two kayaking enthusiasts have taken it upon themselves to steer the Whitewater Park Development Corporation, whose sole purpose is to see a public recreation park positioned squarely beside the U's power plant. "We don't want to run it or profit from it," Tilton explains. "We're just interested in playing in the water."

Here, a stone's throw north of the I-35W bridge near the lower lock-and-dam on St. Anthony Falls, Whitewater would love to see nothing less than a 1,000-foot-plus channel carved into the riverbank that faces downtown Minneapolis. The scheme is simply this: a headgate to control water flow through the channel, turning the river at normal speed into a lively creek tumbling over a series of fabricated waterfalls and rock faces, and on fast-forward into a whitecap cascade fit for Olympians in canoes, kayaks, and rafts.

Dunn shouldn't be surprised that his group's brainchild has earned the mayor's praises. Within the past two years, both the Minneapolis City Council and the Hennepin County Board have passed resolutions in support of the idea. What's more, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the National Park Service have zipped off letters offering their good will and backing to what will likely end up being a multimillion-dollar project.

During this past legislative session Dunn and Tilton--with help from DFL state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who represents the park area--managed to curry favor with Minnesota lawmakers. The House appropriated $100,000 to the state's Department of Natural Resources for a study on the feasibility of the park and designated the terrain in question an Urban Whitewater Trail. A request for contractors to take on the study will be issued in the next couple of weeks, says Michael McDonouth, the DNR's water recreation coordinator. By September his department will handpick a firm to spearhead the study and report back in June. In the meantime the agency plans to schedule meetings to invite public comment. For Dunn and Tilton, getting the study going brings them one paddle stroke closer to their years-long dream coming true.

Not so fast, McDonouth cautions: While the idea may be floating high among city, county, and state administrators, the waters are still murky with questions. What kind of public money are we talking about? What about private bucks? Will the Legislature continue to shell out for the river bonanza? What about the university and NSP, who together own most of the land Whitewater wants for its filters and chutes? Are they on board to sell, lease, or donate their holdings? What about safety? What about transportation, seeing as there's no paved road onto the banks where the megamall of aqua-entertainment might be installed? Will such a grand hydro-canyon go belly-up or gangbusters in the Minnesota economy? McDonouth's response to all of the above? "That's what we hope the report will answer."

Right, Dunn says, but keep in mind that his corporation's baby is a "win-win situation for everyone involved, an idea whose time has come." Not only will the sporting park restore a fair bit of nature's beauty to a blighted industrial eyesore, it's designed as a local rec site for millions of urban residents eager for a walk--make that ride--on the wild side. Preliminary park specs also call for a network of trails hooking up to others already blazed along the banks. Add to that visits by at-risk youth on Outward Bound-like white-water adventures, similar to those led by Michigan's Wolverine Human Services Inc., and you've got a recipe that'll blow naysayers out of the water.

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