#MMGA: Our River Sucks

I’ve been spending a few days in Des Moines, IA as a mini-vacation with my family. It’s a really interesting place as it has a lot of old school charm in places and a bunch of horrible suburbia in others. I actually see Des Moines as a bit of a model for what Mankato could be like, hopefully avoiding some of the mistakes they made along the way.

In 2008, the Des Moines river flooded really badly, jeopardizing a lot of downtown Des Moines with a few inches of over-nitrogenized water.  I’ll commend them, however, from not backing off from their river, not neglecting it but trying to find a balance between flood protection and placemaking. In my opinion, they are doing a pretty good job.

We’ve talked a lot recently about retaining young people in Mankato and I think that the Riverfront plays a crucial if not critical role in achieving this. My generation seems to value sense of place more than our parents. Maybe its because a lot of us grew up in boring, cookie cutter suburbia. We want to be proud of a built environment and our surrounding natural features. We love the Red Jacket Trail, Riverfront Amphitheater and Sibley Park. These are amenities to be proud of and our far larger anchors for young people sticking around compared to, I don’t know, a boring-ass sports complex for rich kids.

Downtown Des Moines. Brian Abeling on Flickr

Let me propose an idea.Take all the money that might be spent on the Sports Complex (yes, ALL of it) and put it toward making our Riverfront awesome.

A quick Google search will return plenty of results of cities revitalizing their riverfronts and the ensuing success that came with it. These places used their money to create a place that is interesting for all citizens, a place they could take pride in.

Right now, our riverfront is an embarrassment. There’s no denying it. Our neglect of it is another crowning achievement of past administrators and city councilors. (It’s hung right on the wall next to the decimation of our downtown.)

The river is what gave life to this city, we owe it everything that we have today. To sit here and watch it slip by, a gray, lifeless extension of our sewer system, is an absolute shame. While I laud the artists that got the mural on there, it’s just lipstick on a pig. I guarantee that all those artists would rather have a river to interact with than the wall that now dons their artisanship. We deserve to have a river that is worth taking pride in. Maybe it could even be a central feature of “Kato X.”

In my mind, there is no argument that riverfront redevelopment would bring more people and more money to this city than a sports complex ever will. Why? Because it doesn’t need continually upkeep if it’s built right. We will be forced to replace the roof, plumbing, air conditioning etc… on a sports complex and it won’t be the generation that’s pushing for it that will pay for it, they will be dead or in a nursing home. My generation will be the one forced to upkeep the temple of the sporting cult.

I can already hear you nay-sayers yelling at the screen, telling me that the Army Corps of Engineers owns the wall and that we can’t touch it without their permission. Well, “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and the one thing lacking since that monstrosity was built has been the will to take it down and find a better use for our river. If we want it, we can make it happen. There are thousands of cities around the globe to look at for inspiration and logistics.

So, this is a public challenge to you, Greater Mankato Growth, and to you, The City of Mankato. Find a way to spend our sales tax extension on our river or, at the very least, a project that directly benefits all our citizens, instead of shoveling it out to the Sports Lobby.

Good luck. I’m sure you’ll leave me thoroughly unimpressed, but a guy can dream.

Thanks to Ben Lundsten for the cover photo.

About Matthias Leyrer

Matthias Leyrer is a resident of Mankato looking to restore a fraction of its old glory. He writes about the economic, aesthetic, practical and financial issues facing the city of Mankato going forward.