If deal jells, Elk River would get a large riverfront park at virtually no cost

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

A 315-acre farm along the Mississippi River may become part of Elk River’s park system at virtually no cost to the city.

“It almost seems too good to be true,” Elk River Mayor John Dietz said.

This map shows the Houlton farm outlined in red.
This map shows the Houlton farm outlined in red.

Steve Hobbs, Minnesota director of the Conservation Fund, outlined the details of the plan during a May 13 City Council work session.

Hobbs believes they are at a point where they understand the price the owner of the Houlton farm may accept and have put together a variety of funding sources to pay for the property.

Those funding sources include the Minnesota Land Trust, Friends of the Mississippi River and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources parks legacy and regional park grant program. Both the Minnesota Land Trust and the DNR grant program have funds available through the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, Hobbs said. The Legacy Amendment was approved by Minnesota voters in 2008. It increased the state sales tax by three-eighths of one percent until 2034 and distributes that money into funds for clean water, outdoor heritage, arts and cultural heritage and parks and trails.

Hobbs said the city would need to put together a proposal to seek the DNR grant, which would provide the majority of the funding. The Conservation Fund would assist with the grant writing.

A view of the river from the farm. Photo courtesy of the City of Elk River
A view of the river from the farm. Photo courtesy of the City of Elk River

“We’ve talked to their staff, the folks who really evaluate proposals, about this particular property and whether or not they thought it might be a good candidate for funding this funding cycle and they feel strongly that it would be,” Hobbs said.

If money from the DNR grant becomes available, he said there should be enough, when combined with the other two sources of funding and a discount on the original sales price that the landowner is willing to provide, to be able to acquire the property.

There should be no real cost to the city in acquiring the land, and “at the end of the day it would be the city that would own the property,” Hobbs said.

“So your role is to put the funding together, purchase the property and then title it over to the city?” Dietz asked.

“Correct,” Hobbs said. Because the farm is for sale now, he added that if they feel it’s a fairly good risk that the funding will eventually come back to them, they could go ahead and acquire the land and then get reimbursed when the funding is all in place.

If the DNR grant is approved, funding would become available early next year, he said. “That’s where we would be looking potentially to maybe acquire it before then if it looks like we have a good chance to get the parks legacy funding, and then hold it until that January-February time frame,” Hobbs said.

While details are still very preliminary, there’s some thought that the farm would become a regional park open to the public for passive recreational activities like hiking and birdwatching.

The Houlton farm in Elk River. Photo courtesy of the City of Elk River
The Houlton farm in Elk River. Photo courtesy of the City of Elk River

The farm is located west of downtown near Orono Dam and has frontage on both the Mississippi and Elk rivers. It is adjacent to Bailey Point, a boot-shaped peninsula which was recently acquired by the city as a nature preserve.

Michael Hecker, Elk River’s director of parks and recreation, said the Friends of the Mississippi River would help maintain the Houlton farm property and be involved long-term.

Council members appeared enthusiastic about the possibility of acquiring the land.

Council Member Matt Westgaard wondered what the vision for the farm would be, what kind of investment the city would need to make once the land is acquired, and what the annual on-going expenses would be.

“It looks to be a great opportunity,” Westgaard said. Preserving green space along the river is a great idea, he said.

Other council members agreed.

Council Member Stewart Wilson said the farm would be “an additional jewel” in the city’s park system.

“It looks like a fantastic opportunity from my point of view, but one that certainly has its share of challenges,” Wilson said. The challenges would include figuring out how to best use such a large piece of property and make it available and usable to the public.

Elk River has never fully capitalized on its presence on the Mississippi River, Wilson said, other than some of the things done downtown. Acquiring the farm would open up a lot more opportunity to use and appreciate the river, he said.

No vote was taken, but it was the consensus of the council to move forward with pursuing acquisition of the property.

Hobbs said the Conservation Fund is a national non-profit organization whose goal is to acquire land for conservation purposes. It acquires land on behalf of federal, state and local governments and other non-profit organizations.

The council had discussed the Houlton farm a year ago after the city was approached by Dotseth Realty regarding the city’s interest in purchasing the property. At that time, the council directed its staff to look into it further.

About the Houlton Farm

•The 315-acre farm is located at 1801 Main St. in Elk River, near the Orono Dam.

•It includes 180 tillable acres where crops like corn are grown.

•There are old mill ruins and oxcart trail ruts on the property.

•It is home to bald eagle nests and the largest tree in Sherburne County.

•It also includes an island.

Source: City of Elk River