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A river learning center being designed for Crosby Farm Regional Park in St. Paul aims to bring the Mississippi River back to the center of public life.

“St. Paul — like all cities on all rivers — at one point turned their back on (the river) because they became industrial,” said Mary DeLaittre, executive director of the Great River Passage Conservancy. “And, just like many cities around the world, we are re-orienting to the river because we understand how truly valuable it is.”

The Great River Passage Conservancy, a nonprofit organization, leads private fundraising and advocacy efforts for three city-led riverfront projects in St. Paul, including the river learning center.

Earlier this year, work on the project accelerated with New York-based W Architecture hired to complete schematic design. On Thursday, the group will unveil conceptual designs for the river learning center at a public meeting set to begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Watergate Marina.

The River Capital 

Creating “The River Capital” is the organization’s vision for St. Paul, DeLaittre said. 

And St. Paul, which has more river’s edge and publicly-owned riverfront than any other city the entire length of the Mississippi River, fits the bill. 

“It’s really a wonderful opportunity for us to be building this learning center, which is focused on the river — creating something that’s small scale, light on the land and very forward thinking — and also focusing on the landscape, which is about conservation, restoration and resilience,” DeLaittre said.

The center being planned for Crosby Farm will also house the National Park Service headquarters and offices of organizational partners, such as Wilderness Inquiry.

Anne Gardner, the project manager for the City of St. Paul, said much of the team’s focus to date has been on engagement with the community and Indigineous leaders.

A convening in 2019 brought together four Dakota tribes and the other agency partners to work on the project. Additionally, a variety of focus groups, committees and surveys have sought input from the broader community.

“There’s a big emphasis right now on engagement throughout the city to different cultural groups and trying to hear from them as far as what different aspects they want to see at the site,” Gardner said.

The river learning center will, in part, highlight significant Dakota sites in the region.

“I think this is another opportunity to bring that forward to the larger community, the region and the state so that we are aware of the Dakota land that we are on and I think it’s a great educational opportunity for everybody,” Gardner said. 

The center will operate year-round. 

A decade in the making 

The concept for the river learning center first emerged a decade ago, when the City of St. Paul began envisioning riverfront redevelopment. 

In 2013, city officials adopted the Great River Passage Master Plan, which proposed over 300 redevelopment projects. 

DeLaittre said design work on the river learning center is expected to take at least another year and a half and the construction could last upwards of two years.

In a very optimistic scenario, she said, the center could open in 2025. 

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