Group looks to build Mississippi whitewater park

Jared Roddy

Bill Tilton becomes animated as he recalls the past glories of the Mississippi. Spinning his reading glasses between his fingers, he explains his hopes of bringing them back.

“The St. Anthony Falls as we know them are a shadow of what they were in the past,” Tilton said. “From where the upper falls are now, it used to be rapids, huge whitewater, all the way down to Fort Snelling.”

Mississippi Whitewater Park Development Corporation, which Tilton heads, wants to build a $25 million whitewater rafting and kayaking park on the Mississippi River.

The plan includes a 2,000-foot channel running roughly parallel with the main river. An island would be formed by creating the channel.

In the constructed channel, hydraulic gates would regulate the flow of water over rapids to allow boaters of any skill level to use the facility.

Director of University Relations Jan Morlock said the University has cooperated with the Department of Natural Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers as the park planning develops.

“If this is done well, it could be a wonderful recreational enhancement for the riverfront,” Marlock said. “But it would have to be done in such a way as to be respectful to the University’s interests.”

Tilton and fellow board member George Dunn said they are working on a solution that would reclaim a piece of the river’s history.

“The vertical drop and the location amidst the city make this the perfect location,” Dunn said. “And the University students, we think, would be primary users of the park.”

Though generally unfamiliar with the idea, University students were receptive to the possibility of whitewater rafting within walking distance of campus.

“Are you kidding? This is a great idea,” criminology senior Whalen Busch said. “I would use this all the time.”

“I didn’t know you could swim in the Mississippi down here,” mechanical engineering sophomore Alex Eakins said. “But this seems pretty cool.”

Though there is bacterial matter in the lower falls area, Sylvia McCollor of the Rivers and Streams Monitoring Unit said the area is getting better.

“I would swim there,” McCollor said. “I’d be a little careful. Bacteria levels are higher after a rain, but otherwise it would be okay.”

In 1999, the Minnesota DNR found the plan economically and technically sound. But former DNR project manager Steve Miller said despite having a lot of support in the community, internal issues have bogged it down.

“Whether this project represents what the DNR should be involved with, maybe some people think the DNR is more about hunting and fishing than whitewater recreation,” Miller said.

Current DNR project manager Cindy Wheeler said the plans call for construction in 2006. DNR Commissioner Gene Merriam will decide in the next month whether the plan will proceed or be channeled to a different department, Wheeler said

Besides internal issues at the DNR, government bodies such as the Minneapolis City Council and the parks board have passed resolutions supporting the plan.

According to the feasibility study, the park could bring an estimated $2.5 million in revenue to the immediate St. Anthony area. But Tilton, Dunn and others believe the greatest benefit would come from getting people back into the Mississippi.

“Once people begin to see how great this resource is, they’ll say, ‘we should look into doing this elsewhere,'” Dunn said.

The long-term goal is allowing the Mississippi River to run freely from Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico, Tilton said.

“But that’s a generation away, at least,” he said.