Whitewater Affair

Susan George

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."

"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.  

It doesn't take long for Dunn to fold into his argument the big educational plus of his company's proposal: Getting Minnesotans into the Mississippi will only help to focus on things like water quality, environmental standards, and the importance of being earnest about the river as one of the state's most valuable resources. "I can remember when you wouldn't dare go near the water in the Mississippi," he says. "Water quality has improved over the years and we hope this park, in bringing people into the river, will be the catalyst for further change." Don't forget, he adds, that schools could also plan regular outings to the park as part of their eco and phys-ed programs--a kind of master-the-craft, tutor-the-child take on learning he figures is bound to excite educators across the state.

And, he adds with gusto, the white-water run is likely to draw boating devotees from around the country, heck, from around the globe, to cut loose and rise to the Man vs. Mighty Miss challenge.

At last count, rafting, canoeing, and kayaking made up the second-fastest-growing sport in the nation. Beyond the fun of it, Tilton says, their park could serve as a controlled training site for water search-and-rescue teams which now trek all the way to South Bend, Indiana, to make use of its white-water park.

Track records among big-scale white-water outfits have proven, Dunn and Tilton argue, that if you build it, they will raft. And raft with money--enough to support a watercourse once it's built. South Bend's parks-and-rec department manages the East Race Waterway on the St. Joseph River in that city. Director Betsy Harriman says that prior to the park's 1984 completion, most of the riverside land where the park now sits was light-industrial or vacant. Today that same terrain is crammed with restaurants and shops and apartments that command rents of $1,000 a month and up.

She calls the waterway "one of the most successful redevelopment projects the city undertook"--a cash cow that shares space with a full-tilt hydroelectric power plant and fish preserve. East Race is open just 15 hours a week for 42 days a year, but even with that tight schedule some 16,000 people have come to paddle the straits in the past two years, and user fees--$2 per ride for inflatable rafts, $6 per day for kayakers and canoeists--have been meeting the operation's expenses and chipping into the park's $4.5 million cost.

With East Race as a model, there's no better location on Minneapolis's stretch of the Mississippi than that near the lower falls, Tilton figures--right where early designs call for their waterborne jackpot to be built. Don Sorenson, a former president of the American Canoe Association who joined Whitewater's board two years ago, says natural features around the lower falls--especially what he calls "the drop" in river level that causes good running rapids--mean any park planted there "has the potential to be one of the world's finest white-water courses."

For its part as partial owner of the land Whitewater has in mind, NSP could get in on the action and take care of its legal responsibilities under the Federal Energy Resource Act at the same time, Tilton says. NSP is right now going through relicensing on its Hennepin Island hydroelectric plant that sits upriver from the proposed park. As part of that process, federal law requires the utilities company to budget for public access to and sport on rivers from which it makes money generating power. "NSP is going to make between $90 and $200 million annually off that plant over the 50-year relicensing period. They have an obligation to make plans for recreation on the river," Tilton explains. Pitching in land or cash to the park, he suggests, would not only count toward NSP's legal duty but make it a good civic citizen to boot.

Consultant Jack Schutz has been working with NSP as it undergoes relicensing for its Minneapolis plant. Tilton is correct, Schutz says: The company does have a charge to enhance the riverfront. "NSP has consistently supported the idea of a white-water park," he explains--but with one caveat. Since the plant that used to sit on the proposed park land was demolished after a washout in 1987--leaving the site vacant--NSP hasn't given up on building another. Plans for a water park must take that possibility into account, Schutz stresses. To that end the company has directed its own landscape architect to draw up a master plan that shows a new power plant right next to Whitewater's channel. "My best guess is that NSP would donate the land," Schutz says--not only to fulfill its legal obligation but, with Whitewater as a nonprofit, as a tax write-off.  

Dennis Asmussen, the DNR's director of trails and waterways, says as far as he's concerned the project has already become a viable enterprise, now that the state Legislature has granted white-water-trail status to the area and given the DNR the go-ahead for studying the park's feasibility--an investigation he, Whitewater, the mayor, the MCDA, downtown developers, and real estate high rollers hope will pay off big for a city in need of less bickering over public financing for mega-scale projects and more new-fashioned fun.

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