With state funding in place for some time, Red Lake River-related projects finally moving ahead

Mike Christopherson

If you’re at all into the Red Lake River and the recreational and natural opportunities it provides in and around Crookston, it’s a great time to be alive.

Although the construction and implementation of actual projects has progressed at a frustratingly slow place compared to the faster pace of state dollars that have been awarded over the past few years to Crookston and other Red Lake River Corridor Enhancement Joint Powers Group communities, via the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission, things are starting to move.

The Crookston City Council Monday evening approved the necessary purchase of some wetlands credits that will clear the way, finally, for an improved and much safer river access point for canoeists and kayakers at the Gentilly Bridge on Polk County Highway 11 east of Crookston. The council also gave the green light to a much larger, seven-figure project, with the centerpiece being an RV campground with up to 45 slots with full water and sewer hookups in Central Park, which will be constructed in 2021. Finally, the council approved, which other joint powers board member-communities had previously, Crookston’s participation in a $98,000 grant through the trails commission over the next two years that will focus on river-related events that introduce various “underserved” populations such as Latinos, Native Americans, new Americans, the elderly, disabled and low-income people to the joys of the river. The City will have to come up with a local match totaling $4,084 over 2021-22 as part of the grant application.

The council vote to participate in the latest grant application was unanimously in favor. But on the resolution approving the purchase of the wetlands credits for $1,120, At Large Council Member Tom Vedbraaten cast the lone vote against, saying not enough people access the river there to make it worthwhile. On the larger project that includes the RV campground in Central Park, Vedbraaten also voted against, along with fellow At Large Council Member Bobby Baird.

The projects

A few years ago, Crookston received around $200,000 for the Gentilly Bridge project, as well as improvements at the access point just east of town off Highway 2 and Highway 9. The latter access is considerably safer than the Gentilly Bridge one, said Mayor Dale Stainbrook, a river enthusiast and avid canoeist and kayaker, and will mostly involve the placement of a large mat going up the riverbank for people to walk up and down on.

The centerpiece is the Gentilly Bridge project. It’s an extremely primitive access in its current state and Stainbrook and other river-users for years have said it’s not safe.

Possibly because of that, Vedbraaten said he’d been “going over that bridge for 40 years” and had never seen anyone using the river there. To that, Stainbrook said he’d used it countless times and that Vedbraaten must not have gone over the bridge “at the right time.” Ward 3 Council Member Clayton Briggs added that he uses the river at that spot two or three times a year. Ward 6 Council Member Dylane Klatt said that he’d launched at that spot, too, and “it’s a pain, and not safe.”

“If we’re serious about giving people access to the river, this is beneficial for our community to have,” he added.

Stainbrook said that, without a decent launch at the bridge, there is nowhere for people to launch between Huot Park and Crookston. With a better launch at the bridge, they’ll be able to have a nice canoe or kayak trip into Crookston, he said.

The project bid was approved earlier this year, Interim City Administrator Angel Weasner said, adding that there were some tweaks to ease the slope in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. There will a relatively primitive parking area under the bridge and off the roadway.

Vedbraaten wondered who will maintain the site, and Weasner and Parks & Recreation Director Scott Riopelle said the City would likely mow it a couple times a year to keep the grass “knocked down.”

“That will be enough,” the mayor added. “This is going to still be pretty primitive and not fancy, but it will be better than what we have right now.”

The $200,000 project includes other improvements in river-related amenities around town and added signage.

But the biggest ticket is the approximately $1.5 million grant for the RV campground in Central Park, which requires a local match of approximately $400,000 to construct a new bathhouse to serve the park and campground. Awarded in 2019 along with other projects in other corridor communities, Weasner said the project must be constructed in 2021. She added that the City will seek to have the bathhouse constructed and classified as an emergency storm shelter as well; if approved, it could free up federal dollars that could cover up to 75% of the cost.

Vedbraaten said he thinks the RV campground is coming along several years too late. The days of Canadians coming down to shop and overflow crowds and waiting lists at the Red River Recreation Area in East Grand Forks are over, he said. “We need a serious discussion on this,” Vedbraaten said. “It’s a lot of money.”

He expressed concern about frequent flooding in Central Park, but, to that, was told that the funders and stakeholders are well aware of Central Park’s penchant for being inundated by the Red Lake River, and that the project will be designed in such a way that minimizes the preparation for, impact of, and clean-up after a flood event. “The East Grand Forks Greenway floods every year, too,” Stainbrook said.

Still, Vedbraaten wondered if the RV campground could be relocated somewhere not at risk of flooding. Weasner and Riopelle said that the City would lose the grant dollars if it tried to relocate the RV campground.

The mayor recalled a private developer several years ago wanting to put an RV campground on the upper portion of Castle Park that extended into the adjacent woods. The council at that time was on board, until a groundswell of opposition from nearby residents resulted in the council voting the project down.

“It would have been privately owned and collected taxes, but it was voted down by the council,” Stainbrook said. “This is Plan B.”

If the City were to “deny” the grant at this point, the mayor continued, “The (State of Minnesota) Legacy (Fund) will never put another dime up in this area ever again and other (corridor enhancement group) communities will be mad at us.”

Ward 1 Council Member Jake Fee, citing budget constraints largely spurred by the pandemic, wondered if the City was putting “too much on its plate” in regard to amenities that would need to be sufficiently operated and maintained.

Weasner said the grant will allow the City to pay a full-time staff member to run the park, handle reservations and maintain it. She also noted that the City, as the fiscal host of the grant, will get a 2.5% administrative fee – bringing in around $50,000 – and she also stressed that the funds for the bathhouse have been sitting in the Parks & Recreation reserve budget for some time. While the current, primitive RV campground in Central Park brings in $15,000 at the very most each year, Weasner said even a new campground at half capacity would bring in almost three times that much, enough to put some money aside for future maintenance and improvements.

Ward 5 Joe Kresl said that any project that brings people to Crookston “is important.”

Stainbrook added that in previous discussions involving the public, Central Park was the preferred location for the RV campground. It’s obviously right next to the river, he said, but the swimming pool, downtown, the theater, library, bars, convenience stores and places to eat are walking distance away. “It would be more foot traffic downtown,” he said. “That’s what people want.”

Although earlier talk included policies like a maximum stay in the campground of two weeks, Weasner and others said those details can be hammered out later. It’s possible that summer construction workers or people who come to work during the sugar beet harvest in the fall would be able to stay longer.

“We need to cater to the Crystal people,” Baird said. “They’re going to spend money.”

Explaining his vote against the RV campground Tuesday, Baird said the local money for the construction of the bathhouse could be spent in ways that better assist local businesses. He noted the condition of the sidewalks in front of downtown businesses and all of the complaints they generate, and said the money could be better spent addressing them, instead of “spending money on a park that floods.”

Baird said he just doesn’t get it.

“I’m really disappointed with the way the vote went,” he added. “The money would be better spent on our businesses.”

The grant has other components on the river in and around Crookston as well, such as a floating fishing pier at Landslide Park along West Sixth Street, a Wildwood Park floating pier, and a jetty around the rock rapids. Several river-related amenities are also being added in Thief River Falls, East Grand Forks and Red Lake Falls as part of the grant package.

Better maps, info

In green-lighting Crookston’s involvement in the $98,000 grant proposal, council members, City officials and Chamber Executive Director Terri Heggie used the new grant opportunity as a chance to stress the importance of having better and updated maps, flyers and online information on all of the new and improved river and trail-related opportunities in and around Crookston. Everyone agreed that it’s all lacking right now, and the opportunities available now and soon to be available need to be communicated much better and much more readily available to visitors as well as Crookston residents.