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Transforming Cloquet’s riverfront

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Although much of Cloquet was built along the St. Louis River, resident Dana Sanders said she’s never really considered it “a river town.” Sure it’s got a river, but not much happens down there.

That could change soon.

“You go some place like Stillwater, and you get a real sense that it is a river town,” Sanders said, after attending a Wednesday night presentation of plans to develop the parks and other city-owned property along the riverside in the heart of Cloquet. “I’m really impressed by what I’m seeing here.”

What she saw were photos of what is and what could be, sketches of future plans for the Veterans, Voyageurs and Spafford parks and miles and miles of trails along and even across the river. The plans were the result of an intense, three-day collaborative process between consultants from SEH, community members and city staff called a “charrette.”

The fancy name doesn’t matter so much, but the results do.

While the many volunteers and city staff that crafted Cloquet’s Master Parks Plan two years ago could agree that the riverfront parks were the No. 1 priority in that plan, they couldn’t agree on what to do with those parks.

Now there’s a plan, albeit a tentative one. And there is money from the city’s local option sales tax that could be tapped to help fund all or part of the various plans.

“This can be done in pieces,” SEH landscape architect Gregg Calpino told the crowd on Wednesday, after revealing that costs to implement all the ideas for the riverfront could be as much as $9.5 million. “There’s really nothing too extravagant [in these plans]. You have a really big area and there’s not a lot there right now. We’re basically trying to catch up with the other parks you’ve already invested in.”

Calpino led the process from start to finish, bringing with him a team of landscape architects, trained to do what Calpino has done for nearly 25 years: “turn spaces into meaningful places, whether it is a waterfront, a park, a plaza, or a downtown,” as phrased on the SEH website.

The charrette began with a tour of the riverside parks Monday morning, and immediately segued into a lunchtime collaborative meeting between SEH expert consultants and volunteer Waterfront Committee members. That evening there was another community meeting, then Tuesday morning started with another committee/consultant breakfast. A lunchtime community meeting followed that.

Throughout the process, the SEH consultants took ideas and tried to make them reality, on paper at least, and then checked back to see what plans inspired people and which ones weren’t as readily embraced.

Trails were first and foremost in Wednesday’s presentation. Drawings showed a hierarchy of trails for pedestrians, bicyclists and ATVs, with separate trails for each. In tighter spaces they might be adjacent, but where there is more land, the motorized trails would likely be set apart from the bike and pedestrian trails.

Drawings showed trails up and down both sides of the river, adjoining to more trails in and around the various parks. In some cases those trails already exist, formally or informally. Other trails and connections would be brand new.

Drawings even showed a couple different possibilities for new pedestrian bridges across parts of the river, including one across existing piers from the boat landing in Spafford Park; another could be built next to the railroad trestle bridge that spans the south branch of the river between the shore and Dunlap Island.

“We spent a lot of time before and during the process ‘field-verifying’ things,” Calpino said, noting that his staff went out and walked the trails, and visited the parks and hillsides. “It’s important that this plan is not just done at City Hall, but that it’s real and buildable.”

Plans for the riverside also included fishing docks or piers, signage and wayfinding, benches and other amenities as desired.

The parks and trails would be all-season. With adequate snow, trails would be used in winter by cross country skiers and snowmobilers. The plan for Voyageurs showed a possible “ribbon” skating rink, a winding wide path of ice that folks could skate on … but not play hockey, since the city already has numerous outdoor hockey rinks. Fire pits and facilities would complement that winter use and holiday lighting would grow to include both sides of the island.

“We want to make Dunlap Island (which includes Voyageurs and Spafford parks) a place everyone wants to go,” Calpino said. “If we build a big amphitheater, is it really a great space for residents? Let’s focus on residents first.”

Plans for Dunlap Island showed a picnic “grove” with a large event shelter near the water for public events and a series of smaller shelters, plus a large rustic-style playground, unlike other existing facilities. Parking would be changed to make it more efficient and to open up more green space.

On the other side of Dunlap, at Spafford, plans showed a public space along the river and a redesigned campground that left the riverside for all to use, while making a more efficient use of the other spaces in the city-owned campground.

“We looked at having all the events at Veterans or Voyageurs, but the group seemed to prefer a balance between both parks,” Calpino said, explaining that both designs show open spaces that could accommodate concerts or other events.

At Veterans Park, the memorial area would expand with the addition of a granite wall at the south end of the plaza, but the other side of the wall would also serve as a permanent stage looking out over a viewing lawn. A grand stairway (with switchbacks for those on wheels) would bring visitors from Cloquet Avenue to the plaza, with other walkways running around and through the park, along with a trail (and historic interpretation spots) around the pond.

The west side of Veterans would remain mostly open green space, although Calpino and his team had drawn in quite a number of trees in the park and on the hillsides. Better restroom facilities, better parking, better entrances to the park and better signage were all key elements of a redesign, the team told the crowd.

In addition, the route from Veterans (and the West End) to Dunlap Island — Broadway Avenue — would also be reworked, and earlier in the process rather than later.

”Right now it’s a bit lawless out there,” Calpino said, referring to the semi-trucks that drive and park there, and use both established roadways and dirt roads that are basically shortcuts as well as the two different train tracks, one which doesn’t even have flashing lights. “I think everyone wants a safer solution,” he added.

It all comes at a cost, of course. When estimated costs for each park and various projects were discussed, there was some sticker shock.

What riverfront parks?

Cloquet’s riverfront parks include a lot of land: Voyageurs Park (where the wooden fort and statue sit); the campground, or Spafford Park; Veterans Park (with its big green fields and wartime memorials); Wentworth Park (a former skatepark, now basically an empty lot); Fauley Park (with the train engine), plus an even greater area of land on the north side of the river, all owned by the city. Less known as a park, the formal trail complex below the Cloquet Area Chamber office is actually named “Riverfront Park,” while the informal trails, fishing holes and trees in the area between Community Memorial Hospital and the river is named “Riverview Park.”

Calpino explained that the various projects and plans could be phased in over two, five, or even 10 years, as funds become available.

City Administrator Brian Fritsinger added that the city hopes it can leverage other funding sources such as state grants, as well as form partnerships within or outside of the community to help make the different park plans a reality.

At the same time, he cautioned that the city and its residents would have to consider what’s best for the community and find a balance between developing the riverfront parks and the other park projects included in the rest of the master parks plan developed last year.

“The master plan identifies a lot of improvements [to city parks] and we want to balance [all the parks] … we also have to think ‘Where do we get the biggest bang for our buck?”

For now, Fritsinger and Calpino advised, it’s time sit on [the various ideas] and digest. Over the next few months, city staff, consultants and members of the Waterfront Committee and others will work to refine and prioritize the ideas, before any final plans are presented to the Cloquet City Council, which has yet to decide exactly how to spend the accumulating sales tax dollars in city coffers.

Find more information on the possible park plans at www.pinejournal.com or www.ci.cloquet.mn.us or contact Assistant City Engineer Caleb Peterson at 218-879-6758.

No skatepark for now

Plans for Cloquet’s riverfront parks included many amenities, from playgrounds to trails to concert viewing lawns, but they did not include a skatepark.

Young skateboarders made up close to a quarter of the 40 or so residents who attended last Wednesday’s presentation, and they were disappointed to hear, again, that a skatepark did not make the (somewhat) final plans.

“We gave it serious consideration, but decided it wasn’t a good programmatic fit [for the riverside parks],” lead consultant Gregg Calpino told the crowd. “That’s not the case for the rest of Cloquet,” he added. “I think the city is still committed to find the right place for it.”

Sean Hall, whose son is an avid skateboarder, said the skateboarders have raised a fair amount of money and are also talking to possible benefactors about contributing in-kind work on a skatepark. He asked if the city had a timeline for a skatepark or even a commitment to building one.

Assistant City Engineer Caleb Peterson acknowledged the conversation has been “going on awhile” but added that the city council had committed to a skatepark “around the $100,000 level.”

As for a timeframe, he didn’t have one.

“As a municipality, we understand there will be a fair amount of resistance to any location,” Peterson said. “So we want to make sure it’s a quality location that will be successful. … We don’t want to just find a corner to tuck in a skatepark, because if it fails twice, I think the community might just walk away.”

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