Water under the bridge: Business leaders hail Kinni dam compromise

Posted March 8, 2018

Driving around River Falls or walking downtown, it’s not hard to spot the blue “Free the Kinni” signs scattered throughout the city.

These signs are visible along highways, in people’s front yards and in the windows of the businesses that residents shop in. It’s almost impossible to live in the city without seeing glimpses of the decision that has been on the horizon for almost two years.

The Kinni Corridor Project proposal was the joint effort of the community to present the City Council with an organized plan for what to do with the city’s two dams. The City Council unanimously passed an amended resolution on Feb. 27, declaring its intention to remove the Powell Falls dam in 2026 and the Junction Falls dam in 2035-2040. This will be possible if enough money is raised through public-private relationships, with river restoration also being a large part of the proposal.

The main message of the “Free the Kinni” movement in River Falls has been based primarily on restoration and returning the river to its natural flow. These plans include taking down the dams in the city and creating more trails and parks that take advantage of the new river access.

One of the city’s business owners, Brian Smolinski, who operates Lund’s Fly Shop on Main Street, thinks that the tourism aspect could be a huge boost for the city.

“I think of the visitors who go to see the falls at Willow River State Park is a prime example of what could be,” Smolinski said.”In a downtown setting, it has even higher potential.”

Smolinski also talked with one of the experts from Inter-Fluve, the firm the city hired that specializes in river restoration and water resources engineering. Their findings were what was presented to the city in order for the City Council to make an informed decision.

“From studies they’ve done of the bedrock and limestone, he pictures it like how the North Shore in Minnesota is, with cascading falls and exposed rocks,” Smolinski said.

The Kinni’s location being so close to the Twin Cities could also have an effect on the success of the restoration. While Smolinski noted that river restoration is especially important for his business, he thinks the largest effect on business will come from the increase in people passing through the town to enjoy the falls and river.

Either way, Smolinski emphasized that the most important thing is having a great park and trail system around the improvements. However, the changes most likely won’t have much of an effect on kayaking opportunities, according to Paige Olson, owner of the Kinni Creek Lodge. The lodge provides numerous paddling and fishing trips on the river.

Olson said that removing the dams won’t really add anything to her business, because the path along the Kinni where the waterfalls are located is too tall to paddle through or to go over the falls. However, she agreed that one of the main ways that more visitors could be drawn is by changing the area around Lake George to allow for more recreation and making a handicap-accessible city park.

Chris Blasius, CEO of the River Falls Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau, also said that the potential downtown improvements can be advantageous to all visitors.

“It’s a good opportunity for multiple use,” Blasius said. “If you’re a mom pushing a stroller or you’ve got elderly grandparents that want to take advantage of the river, I think there’s a good mix use within that downtown hub. There will be more outdoor opportunities and will have a rustic and rural feel.”

These plans are seeking to give more opportunities to the entire community of River Falls, but it’s not completely clear what that will look like in 20 years, according to Blasius.

“Our responsibility (at the Chamber of Commerce) is to promote our community and get people to shop in our stores and eat in our restaurants,” Blasius said. “All of those items greatly align with our natural resources.”

The Class 1 trout stream is one of the biggest drawing points for the river currently, according to Blasius. She said that the new changes to the river corridor will promote walking, biking and many more recreational opportunities that can make the city more appealing to tourists and businesses.

Blasius said that the million-dollar question is if these changes to the river will directly affect the business district in River Falls.

“When you’re making improvements to your Main Street and natural resources, that’s going to be more attractive to a business,’ Blasius said. “There’s been some conversation about improvements for the Kinni Corridor and the future development of retail shops.”

One area that’s being looked at in greater depth is the Riverwalk, which runs parallel to Main Street. There are a couple of shops occupying this area currently, but Blasius said the vision is to make that back alley more enticing as a front entrance. There are also visions of incorporating walking paths and some new enhancements right alongside the river to add more appeal to the downtown area.

Blasius continued to stress the point that any time the city has more to offer from a recreation and tourism standpoint, there will always be more opportunities for businesses and new members in the community.

“Right now, with the exception of maybe the Main Street area, there’s quite a few people who don’t know the river even exists,” Blasius said. “If we can make enhancements that provide greater visibility, I think more people would take advantage of it.”

The corridor planning process involved numerous public meetings and design concepts of how to utilize the space that will be available once the city removes the dams. Some of these plans include better trails to look at the natural waterfalls or downtown park areas on the banks of the river.

Blasius had a chance to be a part of the planning process and said it’s a point of pride for the community. The 11 volunteers had various opinions on what the direction of the river should be, but all the members gave up some of their vision to come up with a big-picture version of the plan, Blasius said.

Coming together for this common vision was possible through a lot of passionate individuals and organizations in the community, according to Blasius. She’s looking forward to them being able to leverage their talents and support the project through funding to accomplish the project’s first goal of removing the Powell Falls Dam in 2026.

“That’s one thing our community is really good about,” Blasius said, “rallying together for the common good.”