The Mississippi River cuts through the heart of downtown St. Cloud, but the city hasn't always embraced the river.
Many of the city's businesses face away from the Mississippi, and there are few places where people can get down to the water's edge.
"We're a river city, and people would never know that, because it's been blocked for so many years," said Pegg Gustafson, president of St. Cloud's Downtown Council.
A group of city officials and local partners hope to change that. They are looking to reconnect their city and its residents with the Mississippi by redeveloping a one-mile stretch of the riverfront from downtown north to St. Cloud Hospital.
The riverwalk project would create a linear park along the Mississippi that would offer opportunities to get close to and even touch the river.
Landscape architect Terry Minarik with the Minneapolis-based firm Confluence was hired to come up with a vision. His four alternative designs offer "touch points" such as canoe and kayak launches, children's play areas and fishing piers.
• Link: See the designs
"We're trying to create opportunities there that are more than just a trail and a place to sit and look out at the river," Minarik said. "We wanted places to engage for people and people to interact and be able to do other things rather than just walk or bike on the trail."
Minarik's designs range from relatively simple to more ambitious. One proposal would cut a channel into the shoreline, creating an island where people could have a picnic or play in the water. Other possible features include a skating rink, beer garden and splash pad.
Gustafson thinks the riverwalk would spark new development, like restaurants and loft housing. She said that's what's happened in other cities that have embraced their waterfront, such as Dubuque, Iowa, and Sioux Falls, S.D..
"People are really looking back at the river and doing things and being in touch with it again," she said. "There's just something calming about being at a lake, being on the river, being near water."
Minarik says river projects have brought economic revitalization to other cities. A project he worked on in Sioux Falls spurred close to $100 million in development along the Big Sioux River.
Dave Laliberte, chair of the riverwalk task force, said riverfront developments that offer active recreation, trails, artwork and play areas for children are proving popular.
"Probably a lot of developers would understand that too — the pull and the draw to be close to an area that's that exciting on a daily basis," Laliberte said.
The project also offers an environmental benefit. Plans call for restoring the shoreline to a more natural state and adding wetlands to capture storm water before it runs into the river.
There are still plenty of unknowns with the project, including the potential cost and funding sources. Some of the proposals would use private property, such as Cathedral High School's Rau Field.
City officials say the next step is coming up with a single plan and calculating the potential cost. They hope to settle on a preferred plan by late May, then try to generate community support.
Kleis noted that community organizations have already stepped up to be part of the project, including the Rotary Club of St. Cloud and Mississippi Partners.
"I think it's very achievable," the mayor said. "It's just what do people see in that vision that they agree with moving forward?"