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St. Paul and Ramsey County have worked for years to reclaim the city’s 26-mile Mississippi River waterfront, which takes in the site of Minnesota’s largest unpermitted dump and once was overlooked by the county jail, of all things.

Now a new philanthropy, the Great River Passage Conservancy, is at the center of community efforts to reinvest in the river and raise money needed to launch three new riverfront projects: a National Park Service headquarters and learning center at Crosby Farm Regional Park, a sweeping promenade spanning much of the downtown riverfront, and an East Side district that connects parks and trails while honoring sacred Dakota sites.

The conservancy’s new executive director, Mary deLaittre, said the plans were inspired by one overarching goal: “How do we connect St. Paul’s two greatest assets — its people and the river?”

The nonprofit has launched a $2.2 million fundraising campaign for project designs and operating funds. It was created as part of the Great River Passage Initiative, St. Paul’s sweeping and long-range blueprint for the riverfront that was drafted in 2013.

“When people come to the city, they want to see and connect with the Mississippi,” said St. Paul Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm. “It is an international environmental asset and we are the local custodians.” The creation of a dedicated nonprofit and the development of public-private partnerships is a critical next step, he said.

The St. Paul Foundation and F.R. Bigelow Foundation have seeded the conservancy with $90,000 in startup funding, and St. Paul has contributed funds to get it off the ground.

“We have the ability to seek private donor support and to work as a trusted independent intermediary,” said Eric Jolly, president and CEO of the St. Paul & Minnesota Foundations and board chairman of the new conservancy.

Great River Passage is working closely with the city, Ramsey County, other nonprofits and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, the 72-mile protected river corridor that became part of the National Park Service system in 1988.

The three projects already enjoy a huge advantage, deLaittre said.

“We are very lucky. The city of St. Paul owns 3,500 acres along the Mississippi, which is vastly different from most cities along the river,” she said. “We don’t have to go acquire any property to get started. We can proceed into transformational work.”

International destination

John Anfinson, superintendent of the Mississippi national park, said the projects have the potential to enhance the river’s appeal as an international tourist destination.

“We are the only national park with a mission focused on the river,” Anfinson said. “I can see visitors from around the world using that balcony and marveling at the river.”

A learning center at Crosby Farm, just steps from the river, would give the national park a desirable marquee location that would draw visitors, he said. It also would help park rangers offer more fishing, canoeing and educational opportunities.

Surrounded by wooded bottomlands and with two large man-made bays protected from the river current, the Crosby Farm site is ideal for paddling and exploration, said Katie Nyberg, executive director of the nonprofit Mississippi Park Connection, which is partnering with the conservancy on planning and fundraising.

“It’s about revealing the river for the treasure that it is,” Nyberg said. “Our hope is this partnership brings our dream to reality.”

The learning center could boost official visit counts to the park, which now sees around 430,000 visitors annually, Anfinson said. “I hope people do get off the plane with the idea of visiting us and getting on the river. It will feel like a national park,” he said.

Ramsey County plans on playing a pivotal role in the downtown river promenade. It owns several properties along the site of the proposed balcony, including the restored Union Depot and the site of the former jail and West Publishing Co. headquarters, both long since razed.

County officials are working with developer AECOM to build Riversedge, a $788 million redevelopment on the bluffline above the river that would include a hotel, luxury housing, retail and high-end office space in four towers. A terraced river balcony with public space connecting downtown to the water’s edge is part of the lofty plan.

“We are supportive of the river balcony vision in downtown and as part of the Riversedge project,” said Josh Olson, Ramsey County’s deputy director for community and economic development.

The third project, the East Side river district, is perhaps “the most complicated one of them all,” deLaittre said on a recent walking tour of Pig’s Eye Regional Park.

Sacred sites

The city and county have large parkland holdings along the river that include sacred and significant Dakota sites. The area, which includes Pig’s Eye park, is a mix of industrial and vacant land that can feel a bit disconnected and inaccessible. It boasts two Superfund sites, including the now-closed Pig’s Eye dump. But it’s also home to a significant heron rookery and assorted bird species.

DeLaittre said it’s an important stop for migrating birds.

Their goal, she said, is to craft a plan that tells the story of the area, heals compromised landscapes and protects the natural environment as well as the Dakota sites.

“This is an exciting time,” Jolly said. “This could be a very powerful turning point for our community to take greater advantage and pleasure out of our river — the most important river in North America.”