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Dokken: $1.26 million grant for LaFave Park in East Grand Forks great news for boating access, recreation

It won’t happen until 2023, I’m told, but Wednesday’s news that funding is imminent for a new boat ramp at LaFave Park moves the project from pipe dream to reality. The existing ramp, which is only wide enough to launch one boat at a time, has been in need of replacement for years

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Boats line up by the dock at the LaFave Park boat ramp at the end of the first day of competition at the Cats Incredible Catfish Tournament on Saturday, July 31, 2021, in East Grand Forks. The city of East Grand Forks on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, learned that it is the recipient of a $1.26 million grant from the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission that will fund a new boat access and other improvements at LaFave Park. Korrie Wenzel/Grand Forks Herald
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There was great news for anglers and boaters on the Red River this week, with Wednesday’s announcement that LaFave Park in East Grand Forks will be the recipient of a $1.26 million grant to improve the park at the confluence of the Red and Red Lake rivers.

The Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission announced the grant as part of a $12.2 million funding package that will benefit 19 other parks and trails around Minnesota, according to a news release from the city of East Grand Forks.

LaFave Park, which is part of the Red Lake River Corridor Regional Trail, was the only site in northwest Minnesota to receive funding from the Parks and Trails Commission.

From a fishing and river access perspective, the most significant development in Wednesday’s announcement will be the eventual construction of new and improved boat access to replace the crumbling launch site that provides access to the Red River below Cabela’s.

It won’t happen until at least 2023, I’m told, but Wednesday’s news that funding is imminent moves the project from pipe dream to reality. The existing ramp, which is only wide enough to launch one boat at a time, has been in need of replacement for years and gets extensive use during the summer months for events such as the Cats Incredible Catfish Tournament, the Red River Valley Catfish League and the Scheels Boundary Battle Catfish tournament.

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The LaFave Park Boat Ramp in East Grand Forks is seen during high water in September 2019 after flooding eroded shoreline adjacent to the ramp. A $1.26 million grant from the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission will allow the city of East Grand Forks to construct new and additional boat access on the Red River and improve other areas within LaFave Park. Contributed / Brad Durick

That’s in addition, of course, to the numerous anglers and boaters who access the river for recreation not associated with any of the major events.

In Wednesday’s news release, Reid Huttunen, East Grand Forks Parks and Recreation director, said the “much-needed” improvements also include new boat access parking and road improvements throughout LaFave Park.

Bruce Nelson of East Grand Forks, an avid river user who serves on the Catfish League board of directors, said the funding is an exciting development for people on both sides of the Red River.

“It’s great for the city and great for the river, of course,” Nelson said. “The brand new ramp is well overdue, but we’re glad to have it for the league and for the community and for the whole city.

“It should be awesome.”

Conceptually, the existing plan calls for replacing the existing ramp and adding a second single ramp to the south just upstream, but that could change, Huttunen told the Herald. The existing ramp has been in place since sometime in the mid-1980s, he said.

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“We haven't done any real engineering beyond this concept,” he said. “I would think there’ll be some time that we’ll start to have – now that we know we have some funding – some more conversation with river users and people that are more experienced in designing these ramps and how the river flows to decide whether two singles, or one that’s wide enough to have two boats on it, is the better design approach.”

Next up, the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission will ask the Minnesota Legislature to approve its grant recommendations through the Parks and Trails Legacy Fund, one of four funds created by the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment that Minnesota voters approved in 2008.

The Parks and Trails Legacy Fund will provide $851,768 for the project, and the city of East Grand Forks will contribute 25% of the project, or $292,881 in matching funds. Once the Legislature approves funding sometime this winter, the city will need to enter an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, since the grant is awarded and administered through the DNR, Huttunen said.

That won’t happen until after July 1, 2022, the beginning of the 2023 fiscal year, he said.

“I would assume that all of 2022 will be consumed by engineering the plans and specs of what the project looks like and getting those approved through the DNR,” he said. “There’s potential for environmental-type studies, and the (Minnesota State Historical Preservation Office) needs to look at the site to determine that we're not disturbing anything that hasn't already been disturbed.”

Ideally, Huttunen said, those hurdles will be cleared by late summer or fall of 2022, at which point the city could put the project up for bids and plan for construction sometime in 2023.

“That’s probably the quickest scenario that it can go,” he said. “I wouldn't expect anything to get built prior to summer or early fall of 2023.”

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A few hurdles remain, in other words, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel for a project that’s long overdue.

“It's been a really strong amenity for the community with kind of a downtown river access, especially on the Minnesota side, and it’s only going to boost that,” Huttunen said. “It’s long overdue in a lot of ways, in that the ramps themselves need to be improved. The parking facilities that we’re going to be able to create that will help clean the area up and make the area a lot more appealing aesthetically, I think, are as important as access to the river itself.

“Hopefully, we can continue to build out that park space just to make it a lot nicer-looking and a more usable focal point of our community.”

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Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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