By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
The Little Falls Park, Recreation and Tree Board is looking at whether allowing camping in two city parks is feasible — specifically Le Bourget Park and Mill Park, both on the west side.
Currently, camping is not allowed in any city park, by city ordinance.
Jeff Tschida, chair of the Park, Recreation and Tree Board, said the idea has come up off and on over the last eight – 10 years.
“We bring it up and over the years, one Council leans toward it and the next Council says no they don’t want it,” he said. “It’s never gone anywhere.”
The issue was discussed during the Sept. 16 work session of the Little Falls City Council.
Tschida thinks it may be different this time
“What I think is different this time around, is that the city is doing so much to promote bicycling, canoeing and trying to vitalize the downtown area,” he said. “That people coming through town, however they’re getting through — hiking, biking, horseback riding — that we offer them places to stay that are convenient to use and close to downtown businesses to shop and spend money in town.
“The City Council and various people from town have been out looking at different communities — like Lanesboro — and they just bend over backward to welcome you into their community,” said Tschida. “They have places, like bed and breakfasts, campgrounds and places to park RVs, everywhere they have open space to do it.”
The Board is looking at primitive camping at Mill Park, an area off South Lindbergh Drive and near the Mississippi, where the former Hennepin Paper plant operated.
“A lot of people drive in there under the trestle and see metal buildings,” said Tschida. “And that’s not the park at all. That’s a city storage building. You have to drive by that building, down to the river, go underneath the trestle and then you come into the park.”
A small sign says “Mill Park.”
“It’s not well advertised,” said Tschida.
“Mill Park is a well-kept secret,” he said, noting that kids know about it.
Remains of the Hennepin Paper building are still there, Tschida said, as well as the waterway that went through the mill.
“Some of the turbines, some of the machinery is still down there, fenced off, and a road that goes all the way up to Minnesota Power to the dam.”
That, he said, is how Minnesota Power gets back to the hydro plant. He said there’s a bit of backwater where canoes land near there as well.
“Mill Park has been there ever since the cleanup (of the Hennepin Paper Mill site). I’m sure that park has been maintained for at least 10 years, maybe 15,” he said.
A big push to get camping into city parks, said Tschida, came with the Minnesota government shut down.
“That’s when Mayor VanRisseghem tried to get the people that were turned away from Lindbergh State Park allowed into Le Bourget Park and we couldn’t do that, because we would have had to change the ordinance,” said Tschida “The closest they could get them was the fairgrounds.”
It was at that time Tschida said the Park Board began discussing it.
“We came before the Council to see if there was any interest in the City Council for us to move forward, so that we weren’t wasting our time, because this has been brought up before other councils,” he said.
The basic reason for the push to get camping, said Tschida, is simple.
“To keep the people in the downtown so that they can shop, spend money and use facilities, like restaurants, bars, gas stations and shops. When you push people out of the town — the closest campground is Lindbergh State Park over a mile out of the city — people get out there and they stay there.”
He said if they were closer, like in Le Bourget or Mill Park, he felt campers would be able to see the restaurants and stores, all within walking distance.
“Le Bourget is such an underused park,” he said.
Tschida said the Board envisions places for RVs to park with water hookups, electricity and a dump site on the north side of Le Bourget on Paul Larson Memorial Drive.
“We have the opportunity — the water, the sewer and electricity is already there,” said Tschida.
The water, he said is seasonal. “We don’t have to put in permanent water lines — it’s a minimal amount of expense,” he said.
The Board picked these two parks because neither abuts a residential area, alleviating the problem of disturbing residents.
Different organizations in town, such as the Lindbergh Lions and the West Side Improvement Association, would fund the project, said Tschida. “This money would not come out of taxpayers’ money.”
Little Falls Public Works Director Jerry Lochner said water isn’t available in Le Bourget Park, but about 320 feet away. “When Larson Boats did their expansion, we brought city water closer to Le Bourget. We should have a fire hydrant in Le Bourget, anyway, but currently there is no water there.”
In addition, sanitary sewer is available in Le Bourget Park, and electrical power. “But it (the electrical power) would have to be added to, to be made available to campers, but it’s only a couple hundred feet away,” said Lochner.
And while electrical power runs to the park, there are no hook-ups. “We have electrical outlets for Dam Festival activities and the Antiques and Collectibles Fair, so there’s power,” he said.
The West Side Improvement Association helped pay for all of that, said Lochner. The sewer, he said, has been there for many years.
While, as Tschida suggested, organizations in the city will raise funds for the project, Lochner said it will cost the city something to get water into the park.
Space for potentially 30 RVs is on the north end of Le Bourget Park, Lochner said.
“If each space was 25-foot by 50-foot, we could get 30 in there,” said Lochner. He’s not sure whether that’s a good size for a space.
He and city staff will be looking at details more closely in the near future, and will contact other cities that have camping facilities as well, to find out what else is involved.
Lochner said cost estimates, more detail and reports from other communities will be gathered.
Then, he said, there are other matters to consider, such as who is going to pick up the garbage left, police the time noise must be controlled, whether fire rings will be allowed and what other types of activities will be permitted.