On a changing Mississippi, tourism's importance is growing

The Mississippi from Harriet Island Park
Boats like this one are getting more common on the Mississippi River as its tourism industry blossoms.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Nearly $500 billion in revenue and 1.5 million jobs in the United States economy come from the Mississippi River valley — a stretch of land two counties deep on either side of the water.

"So much stuff starts here in the Mississippi River," said Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative. "The global chain from the Mississippi River all over the planet is quite extensive."

Manufacturing is by far the biggest revenue-generator along the river, and it accounts for over a third of the valley's jobs. Beverage, food, chemical and metal manufacturing are among the largest subsets.Brands from Anheuser Busch to Dupont to ExxonMobil all have factories along the Mississippi.

Water is manufacturing's lifeblood. Companies need to draw from the river to make goods, and float their finished products down the river to customers.

But as the river faces increasing environmental threats, disappearing wetlands and changing industries, there are signs the Mississippi's economy is transforming.

Natural spaces become increasingly key

Some old manufacturing towns along the river are on a decline.

"Steel plants that used to employ 5,000 people now employ under 500 because of automation and technology. It just gets more efficient and better," Wellencamp said.

But as manufacturing either dies out or gets more automated, he said, many mayors along the river are starting to see their economic futures in tourism.

"Tourism is exploding," Wellencamp said. "It's fantastic. We now have several cruise lines operating on the Mississippi River."

More tourism companies, including Viking River Cruises, are moving in to meet the unfulfilled demand, Wellencamp said.

As tourism grows in importance, communities along the river are realizing how valuable natural spaces are to their economic well-being.

But there's not as much nature as there used to be. Many of the Mississippi's 2,320 miles have been developed to make towns and build factories and farms.

Leaders along the river aren't opposed to major development along the river, Wellenkamp said. They want the jobs and money that come with development, he said, but "we have to be careful on how much of the natural infrastructure is sacrificed for development, and where."

In addition to making the river valley more attractive to visitors, forests, wetlands, marshes and other natural spaces shield cities from floods and retain water during droughts, Wellencamp said.

That's just the start of why river towns want to preserve nature.

"We not only have natural disaster shields, we have a natural water purification system [from wetlands]," he said. "We don't want to lose any more than we've already lost, because we've lost a lot. Eighty percent-plus of the wetlands are gone."

Tune in the week of June 16-20 as MPR News host Kerri Miller takes a trip down the Mississippi River for a special series of Flyover, a national call-in show from between the coasts and across the aisle.