The following article by Tom Meersman was published in the March 21, 2011 issue of the Star Tribune:


Boom Island, a 22-acre park on the Mississippi River just north of downtown Minneapolis, is set to get a $1.2 million makeover.

Its little-used neighbor, B.F. Nelson Park, will receive $800,000 worth of improvements.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board approved a contract last week that will spur those changes, many of them within the next few months.

In addition to serving adjacent neighborhoods, Boom Island’s East Bank location and amenities make it a popular draw for larger gatherings, including school outings, corporate events and races.

The improvements come as the park district eyes long-term redevelopment along the Mississippi River and seeks to alleviate growing recreational pressure on popular parks elsewhere in the city.

Michael Rainville, a veteran leader and board member at St. Anthony West neighborhood organization, called the changes “the start of great things on the upper river. These parks are going to become a jewel for the blue-collar people who live in north and northeast [Minneapolis].”

About $1 million of the rehab funds will come from the Legacy Act, sales tax money approved by voters in 2008 that’s dedicated, in part, to parks and trails. The rest of the money comes from the Metropolitan Council, which helps to fund regional park acquisition and development.

Boom Island, which the park system acquired in the mid-1980s, includes picnic shelters, trails, children’s playground, boat launch, promenade near the river and an excursion dock used by a commercial paddlewheel company.

However, the park is flat and open, and its trees have not thrived in the poor soil along the river. Its restrooms don’t meet federal standards for people with disabilities, and the boat launch needs to be dredged.

Rehabilitation and landscaping will fix many of those problems, said Liz Wielinski, park board commissioner who represents the area.
Independent of that effort, which has been in the works for three years, the park board hired a design firm this month to work on development along the larger stretch of riverfront between the Stone Arch Bridge and the city’s northern boundary. Wielinski said that group may propose additional Boom Island changes in the future.

Little-used B.F. Nelson Park is nestled next to Boom Island, bordered on the east by Marshall and Main Streets between 3rd and 6th Avenues. Its 12 acres includes open spaces that slope from the river up to city streets. Large elms and cottonwoods line the riverbank just across a channel to Nicollet Island.

Acquired in 1986, the park lacks an entrance and underwent several years of soil pollution clean-up. The property has a history of industrial use, including by its namesake, B.F. Nelson Manufacturing Co., a long-time roofing, lumber and paper business.
Improvements planned include two paved entrances to the park — one for cars and one for bikes and pedestrians — and a small parking lot. Funds also will be spent to light the trails and develop a plaza, bike rack and drinking fountain around Pioneers Monument, which overlooks the river.

“It’s kind of nice to see things turning around,” said Wielinski, noting improved access to the park and river.

Jayne Miller, superintendent of the Minneapolis parks system, said several parks and parkways are over-capacity for special events and other uses so it’s a great time to take advantage of less-utilized parks along the river.

“If we can create this portion of riverfront to be as attractive to people as the chain of lakes are, what an incredible opportunity this is,” Miller said.

That would be fine with Rainville, who said he and others have been working for years to make that happen.

“Our children don’t necessarily have the ability to go north to cabins on the weekend, but we have parks in Minneapolis,” he said. “Families can grab a sandwich and go down to Boom Island and look at the Mississippi River and play in the park, and they deserve that. We all deserve that.”