See more of the story

Hoping to jump-start plans for a new park along the St. Croix River, a group of competitive rowers is lobbying to open a rowing club and sports center just north of downtown Stillwater by next spring.

The spot they have chosen has thousands of feet of scenic riverfront and a natural setting that city officials long have wanted to turn into a public park with premium river access. The land has been city-owned for four years, but it has been mothballed while city officials prepared a master plan for its use.

Could it be ready for a rowing club when the ice breaks up in a few months? Ixchel McKinnie thinks so.

“It needs to happen in phases, but I really do believe that they should start to activate something on that property,” said McKinnie, a competitive rower and businesswoman whose vision for the site includes a dock and watercraft storage in an existing house on the property.

Yet city officials said they simply don’t know if the house or even the site could be opened to the public within a few months. The City Council last week directed staffers to examine the house and land and come up with a list of what would have to be done to get the site ready by springtime.

Mayor Ted Kozlowski said a rowing club would be a great fit. The park would become the only St. Croix River access point in Stillwater for nonmotorized boats.

“It’s a perfect place for all of this,” he told McKinnie when she pitched her plan to the City Council last week.

The city recently took the next step in planning and issued a request for proposals for a master plan. Those proposals are due back later this month, Stillwater Community Development Director Bill Turnblad said. It would be another six to nine months before the master plan is complete.

It has always been assumed that the 15-acre property would someday become a park. It was home for decades to the Aiples, a German immigrant family that owned a brewery dating to the 1850s on the south end of Stillwater, where the Oasis Cafe sits today.

The last resident of the property, Elayne Aiple, died in 2015 after selling her family’s tract to the city for $4.3 million.

A combination of city, county and state funds paid for the property, and the funding sources originally called for the demolition of the Aiple house. That’s no longer required, Turnblad said, and the house might be repurposed into a public facility of some kind.

A concept plan prepared in early 2017 shows fishing piers, natural-surface walking paths, and a canoe and kayak rental station along with picnic tables for public use.

A new rowing club is “absolutely perfect” for the former Aiple property, said City Council Member Michael Polehna. A dock to get the park started could cost about $10,000 to $15,000, he said. No plans are in place to add parking to the area; existing parking near the Zephyr Theater would require kayakers and canoers to portage up the Brown’s Creek State Trail.

Fewer than 10 competitive rowing clubs for teenagers exist in the metro area, and most of them are clustered in the western suburbs. The Minnesota Rowing Club on Harriet Island in downtown St. Paul is the closest club for kids growing up in Washington County, McKinnie said. A St. Croix River rowing club in Hudson, Wis., doesn’t offer youth lessons or coaching.

Katya Reimann, who is among those hoping to see a Stillwater Rowing Club start up next year, said her son Gardner rowed for legendary rowing coach Miriam Baer until she died this year.

Baer, who was a longtime coach for the Minnesota Rowing Club, left behind a crew of eight boys she had been training for major national races. Reimann said some of the rowers hope that a Stillwater club, if formed soon, could become the new home for that core group of racers.

“I’ve looked at the potential site and I think it’s marvelous,” she said. “The water over there is absolutely beautiful.”

The river current and occasionally windy conditions along that stretch of the St. Croix could even be helpful for training rowers, Reimann said, as competitive races are sometimes held in less-than-ideal conditions.

Kelly Ren said her daughter Amelia, 15, would row on the St. Croix if Stillwater offered a program.

“There’s really no place for these kids to row on the east side of the metro,” she said. The Aiple property has “so much promise,” she added.

Rower Harrison Mattern, 17, of Hudson, said he and some other rowers left the Minnesota Boat Club recently and hope to find a new home on the St. Croix.

“There’s about six of us right now,” he said. “We’re all working out together.”

Mattern is considering a rowing scholarship at a Florida university as well as the U.S. Naval Academy and other programs. For now, he’s hoping to finish his high school career in Stillwater.

“That would be great water to row on,” he said.

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329