A plan to better utilize the Cannon River includes components that, if implemented, would result in substantial changes for downtown Northfield.
The plan, introduced during a Sept. 9 Riverfront Enhancement Advisory Committee meeting, calls for the city to entirely develop Ames Park at Fifth Street and Hwy. 3, start planning for a multi-use building for Babcock Park/rodeo grounds, and implement canoe/kayak water access for the Cannon River.
Another major component of the plan calls for the city to complete its local/regional trail system by planning and installing a comprehensive wayfinding system, connecting Ames to Sechler Park, completing the Mill Towns Trail, adding bike lanes to downtown bridges and mowing the temporary trail on city land along the west side of the Cannon River.
The plan also calls for the city to explore the transfer of the Ames Mill Dam, owned by Post Consumer Brands/Malt-O-Meal, to the city and transforming it into “an exciting and rare whitewater experience.” The plan suggests conducting a dam study recommended by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources staff, assessing alternatives for the future of the dam, and applying for grant funding for the new dam’s design and construction.
“There is excitement building around the possibility that the Ames Mill Dam might play an important role in reinforcing the health, continuity and variety of the Cannon River State Water rail,” the plan states. “Designated as a wild and scenic river, the Cannon still suffers from environmental degradation and human intervention. A reconstruction for the existing dam has the potential to be both a restorative feature and significant recreational regional attraction.”
Promoting the economic development of Northfield and its role as a tourist destination is also included. Immediate action could include exploring incentives to improve the riverside faces of downtown buildings, working with one or more businesses on pilot projects and applying for grant funding.
“The city has the opportunity to build on its successes and innate charm to become a year-round destination for recreation, nature, arts and culture,” according to the plan =. “But, this effort is not simply a parks plan. It is also an economic development strategy that benefits both the local community and attracts a regional audience.”
The plan also calls for the city to begin the application process to apply for formal state designation as a regional park in greater Minnesota by June 30, 2021. Community Development Director Mitzi Baker said the designation would heighten the possibility of Northfield leveraging funding to enhance the region’s reputation as a regional destination.
“Northfield is on the cusp of realizing a tremendous opportunity, to build on the four completed conceptual park diagrams as the basis for a unified Regional Park Master Plan,” the plan states. “This will focus on environmental restoration, recreation and connectivity as the hallmarks for a local and regional park destination.”
Firm timelines were not established for most of the projects. The Northfield City Council could approve the action plan Tuesday.
“It’s going to take a while for us to implement,” said Riverfront Enhancement Advisory Committee member Erica Zweifel.
Zweifel, who is also a Northfield city councilor, added the consultants were “incredibly helpful,” and spoke highly of the makeup of the Riverfront Enhancement Advisory Committee, which included community members representing a number of organizations.
To Zweifel, the plan provides the city with a “great starting point,” and serves as an idea incubator. She said focusing on the Cannon River as an economic driver is smart.
“It’s a really good plan,” she said. “It’s an ambitious plan, but it will be useful for many years and it will have many impacts along the way.”
Zweifel spoke of the importance of the proposal including planned council work relating to climate, flood mitigation and other strategic goals.
“This is going to spark conversations for many years to come,” she said.
To Baker, the city can take simple steps within the next year to move forward in the process, including possibly receiving grant funding from state and federal agencies, private philanthropic organizations or through partnerships with other stakeholders.
‘It was a really good investment’
The Northfield City Council approved forming the Riverfront Enhancement Advisory Committee during a November 2018 meeting. The committee was tasked with developing plans and action steps the city could take to better utilize the Cannon River, which cuts through Northfield’s heart. Making improvements along the riverfront was a specific goal listed under economic development within the city’s 2018-20 strategic plan.
The committee determined what areas of the river/riverfront should be targeted for improvement and suggested ways for said improvement.
The city received assistance in the process from the National Park Service through a technical assistance grant, allowing substantial work to take place in reviewing plans, cataloging ideas and filtering and ranking projects. Workshops were facilitated with local stakeholders.
The city signed a $35,000 contract with consultants Bob Close and Bruce Jacobson, who were later joined by Julie Aldrich. The consultants translated previous work into concept diagrams, and community listening sessions were held prior to the onset of COVID-19 to gauge how much the community valued and enjoyed the Cannon River. The consultants then took much of the work already done by the National Park Service and Riverfront Enhancement Committee and developed the action plan, which is also infused with consultant expertise and their knowledge of placemaking and community building.
“It was a really massive undertaking,” Baker said.
“It was a very good investment.”
The Cannon River flows into southwest Northfield from the Dundas area. It travels northeast through the community, including the downtown, eventually passing through the Carleton arboretum, before heading north to Waterford and then east to Cannon Falls.
The Riverwalk, built along both sides of the river over an approximately quarter-mile stretch in the downtown, is often called the “crown jewel” of Northfield. But it’s one of the few places in the city where the river is incorporated into the design and used as an amenity.
“It’s really an asset for the region and a jewel for Minnesota to be celebrated,” Baker said.