River access, wildlife habitat, year-round recreation: Cottage Grove’s unique opportunity

Where can you stand at the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities metropolitan area and — instead of human structures — see deer, turkey, beaver, bald eagles, scores of migrating birds and rafts of waterfowl? Where can you roam pathways through 180 acres of largely undeveloped oak savanna? Then walk next door to 237 acres of high-quality dry sand prairie habitat containing populations of grassland birds and five rare plants? And all of this overlooking a beautiful stretch of the river itself?

Cottage Grove, that’s where. That is, if the City of Cottage Grove and its residents seize a unique opportunity to protect a special piece of land currently for sale.

From golf green to green space?

The Mississippi Dunes Golf Course, located on the banks of the Mississippi River across from Grey Cloud Island, closed for business in the fall of 2017. Its closure creates a rare chance to benefit both wildlife and the Cottage Grove community — and surely become a regional draw as well. Protected from development, this site has the potential to provide river access in an area where it is sorely lacking, significant acreage for wildlife habitat, year-round recreation, waterfowl hunting opportunities, and an event venue with stunning views of the Mooers Lake channel and the Mississippi River valley.

But the location has also caught the attention of a number of developers exploring options for constructing high-priced housing. The City of Cottage Grove’s Draft 2040 Comprehensive Plan notes the need for additional planning for the site, while at the same time identifying the location as a “redevelopment area,” and highlighting the market interest in residential units.

It's understandable that the city needs to plan for its continued growth, preserving this site as open space would address a great number of the goals outlined in their Draft Comprehensive Plan — goals based on the input received from residents.

Our land conservation program has been working for more than a year to create a pathway to preserve this site as open space, collaborating with partner organizations and state and county officials. Collectively, we believe we can likely raise the necessary funds to purchase the land.

But we need a public entity to take ownership of it. One option would be for the City of Cottage Grove to own the site. FMR hopes that the city will come to appreciate the value of this very special property as a park.

The benefits of open space

This is just one concept of how the former golf course could be transformed into parkland, including miles of trails through restored prairie and oak savanna, a boat launch, picnic area and a bird-viewing platform. (Thanks to SRF Consulting for this image.)

River access for boaters, anglers, hunters and more
  • Cottage Grove’s Draft 2040 Comprehensive Plan identifies a goal of providing public access to the river. A park in this location could provide a boat launch for canoes, kayaks and small motor boats. Currently, the nearest public river access is Lion’s Levee Park in St. Paul Park, six miles to the north.
  • The site would provide access for fishing and access to some of the best waterfowl hunting on this stretch of the river.
  • The site would provide better access to Settler’s Island, a three-acre, city-owned island just half a mile around the bend in the channel. FMR is currently partnering with the city to restore the island to native vegetation as part of an effort to provide an enjoyable stop for boaters.
Wildlife habitat and widlife-watching
  • The site is immediately adjacent to Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area. Protecting the golf course would create a much larger, contiguous area of habitat for wildlife — and create better and more accessible wildlife-watching opportunities for people.
  • The golf course has been closed for a year and a half, and wildlife is already moving back in the absence of golfing activities and as vegetation grows. Restoring the site to native vegetation — as FMR has done on more than 60 sites across the Metro — would provide even more habitat.

Pelicans and other wildlife have already begun returning to the river and its open space here.

Year-round recreation
  • The current network of golf cart trails across 180 acres can readily be converted to paths for hikers, runners and bird watchers in the warmer seasons, and by skiers and snowshoers in the winter months.
  • A waterfowl viewing platform could enable visitors to see the thousands of ducks, geese, pelicans and shorebirds that use the river’s shallow back channels.
  • Picnic tables at the river’s edge could provide places for families to gather.
  • The former clubhouse with its long picture windows overlooking the river could be converted for multiple uses: an event space for weddings, meetings or parties; a YMCA day camp; a space for nature programming; a location for a rowing club; a community center gathering space.
  • The site could be connected to another nearby potential acquisition by the City of Cottage Grove. The city is exploring options to purchase seven acres owned by Marge Schmaltz across the road from the Mississippi Dunes Golf Course. The City has a chance to link all three sites — the Mississippi Dunes Park, the Schmaltz property and Settler’s Island — as a one-of-a-kind river park and recreation area unlike anything in the region.

Possible revenue from a potential park

Turning the golf course into a park still offers the city opportunities to generate some income. The clubhouse on the site could be leased to an event planning business, to day or nature camps or to boating clubs.

The other equipment and maintenance buildings also provide leasing possibilities. One of FMR’s landscape restoration contractors has expressed interest in using the buildings as its headquarters. For them, not only do the buildings meet their needs, but if they were able to participate in the restoration, they could readily demonstrate — out their office door — the ecological transformation from turf grass to native vegetation.

Let's make a Mississippi Dunes park a reality

Cottage Grove’s Draft Comprehensive Plan calls for acquiring and preserving park and open space areas, and notes the continued increase in demand for parks and recreation services. A Mississippi Dunes park would perfectly address those needs and goals. FMR looks forward to working with Cottage Grove residents and elected officials to explore this rare and exciting opportunity.

If you're interested in getting updates or in working with us on this project, contact Betsy Daub, FMR conservation director: bdaub@fmr.org or 651-222-2193 x12.

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