Imagine a large building with a deck overlooking the Yahara River in Mandt Park, where recreation equipment is rented to the public to use at a new whitewater park and extended river trail system.
The building, which includes a kitchen offering food and beverages, is connected to a newly redeveloped riverfront on the Yahara’s north side by a pedestrian bridge. And Mandt Park is filled with locals and out-of-town visitors using the city’s new pickleball complex, shopping at a farmers’ market or relaxing while a band performs in a beer garden.
At this point, it’s only a concept that parks and director Tom Lynch and recreation supervisor Dan Glenn have dreamed up. But it could morph into something more after the results of a feasibility study come back to the city in coming months.
On Jan. 28, the Common Council authorized Lynch to spend up to $6,000 from a park development fund to hire a company to conduct the study.
The results of that study won’t be ready in time for the community-wide design charrette later this month, which could help determine what that redevelopment area will look like and contain, but Lynch hopes keeping the idea in the back of people’s minds will make a difference.
The concepts Lynch and Glenn presented at the Jan. 28 meeting were generally well-received, although a couple of alders expressed reservations about some aspects of what Lynch said is a flexible proposal.
And there are competing interests at Mandt Park – including the Stoughton Junior Fair – that could also complicate making the dream a reality. But with other cities bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue at similar whitewater rafting facilities alone, Lynch sees great potential.
“This is a dream of a bunch of things that we think really make sense for the city,” Lynch told the council at the meeting. “We would like to be able to move forward with this, but it starts with getting money for a feasibility study for the building.”
Connecting with nature
Lynch told the Hub he and Glenn began discussing the idea of creating a facility on the river where people could “access things to do outdoors” a few years ago.
It was “on the back burner” because it seemed like a “huge thing” and they weren’t sure where to begin.
They quickly recognized their concept fit nicely with a Norwegian philosophy known as “friluftsliv,” which literally means “free air life.” The term’s cultural connotations have to do with society’s outdoor connection to nature, and it has come to embody Norway’s cultural enchantment with the natural world.
“We feel that the whole Norwegian philosophy fits what this community wants,” Lynch said.
He contends there’s an emerging trend in which fewer families are participating in highly organized youth sports. He said the “whole intense program” where people spend lots of time and money traveling to watch their kids compete is in decline.
“Surveys show that people want to do more natural things and be outdoors,” he said. “That’s high on our rec survey, and it’s big on the comprehensive plan, too.”
So instead of spending money to build “the next big sports complex,” Lynch explained, “we’d rather shift to this idea and be the place that people come to for something different.”
He said ideas he and Glenn discussed about making Stoughton a destination and making better use of Mandt Park started to cohere as plans to redevelop 10 acres across the river near the MillFab industrial site gained traction.
The city’s Redevelopment Authority purchased the MillFab parcel in December, and by then it had selected a master developer to lead the transformation of the area with new buildings and public amenities.
“We want people who move there to have something to see on the other side of the river,” Lynch said.
City alders Paul Lawrence and Tom Majewski liked the idea of a new facility in Mandt Park and also creating a whitewater park on the river. But both urged Lynch to think more broadly about developing the park to take better advantage of the large green space just blocks from the downtown.
Mayor Donna Olson described the proposal as “an exciting opportunity for growth down along the river” and a chance to take better advantage of the river.
“It’s certainly a dream and a plan for the future, but I think it’s very doable,” she said. “I think more use and better use of that park will be a natural progression.”
Building on the river
The centerpiece of the plan is a building that started small but grew as they began to develop it.
Lynch and Glenn first thought of creating a rental operation in Mandt Park as a way to draw people to the park. They gradually expanded the idea to include a year-round facility that would also serve as “a social gathering place” and possibly house parks and recreation department offices.
Their initial concept calls for a one- or two-story building that’s 165 feet long and 45 feet wide (7,425 square feet), with public restrooms, a kitchen, a deck and a large community room.
The building would be owned by the city and could either be run by city staff or contracted to a private operator.
“We’ve talked with Darren Marsh at Rutabaga (Paddle Sports in Madison), and maybe we can contract with them in the future to do all the rentals,” Lynch said. “Then we don’t have to buy stuff or manage it, but just take a cut.”
He and Glenn see lots of other possible uses for the building, including opening a restaurant and beer garden with potential for live entertainment, or hosting a farmers’ market.
Regardless of whether the new facility is built, Lynch and others (including the RDA) envision a pedestrian bridge connecting Mandt Park to the redevelopment area and a green corridor that connects Rotary Park to the river.
“We can imagine the developer creating a mall where you’d go right from the Gazebo (in Rotary Park) with a straight shot to the bridge and to the building that I’m talking about,” Lynch observed. “There’s so many good reasons why it should work.”
Rapids on the Yahara
Lynch has informally discussed the concept of the Friluftsliv facility for several months, as he considered ways to draw more people to the river and Mandt Park. But he surprised at least a few people when he presented the idea of creating a whitewater park on the river.
He credited resident Marlene Widra with suggesting it, and as he and Glenn checked into the idea, they concluded it would have the potential to drive economic development here.
They looked at a whitewater park in Manchester, Iowa, which they discovered has “a $2 million annual impact” on the local economy. The city of just over 5,000 residents draws 1,000 visitors a day during the summer months, Glenn said.
He added that similar park, farther west in Charles City, Iowa, generates about $750,000 per year.
“We think if we build one here, we’d be the closest whitewater park to major population hubs like Milwaukee and Chicago and would draw visitors to Stoughton,” Glenn said. “I talked to Darren Marsh, and he said there’s a high demand in this area for a whitewater park.”
Last week, Lynch told the Hub he’d contacted a company that develops whitewater parks by drawing down the river and placing sand and boulders in the channel to “funnel the water” to create rapids. He plans to talk with similar businesses and seek cost proposals after he’s determined the details of what to include in a feasibility study.
“They thought it (the Yahara) was a really good river for this,” he said. “We would start after the dam and run it downstream as far as you want to go – probably no farther than Dunkirk Park.”
He added that there wouldn’t be a fee for people to use the river, but there would be to rent equipment.
Glenn said whitewater parks are gentle enough to allow for all skill levels, whether people are using inflated inner tubes, canoes or kayaks.
He added the changes would improve fish habitat as well, something that anglers of all ages would welcome.
Lynch said his department has long-term plans to extend the city’s river trail system, and he added there’s a possibility for trails through the redevelopment area that would continue to both the east and west.
“We hope to get trails behind Uniroyal and all the way to Water Street,” he explained. “Then we could run right through the redevelopment area into Dunkirk Park and exit on Academy Street.”
The underlying goal is to help people to be more connected to nature by using things like bikes, canoes, kayaks and anything else they want to use.
The proposal is in the early stages, and Lynch said there’s a lot of work to do.
“We don’t even know how much it would cost, but we think it would be a big asset for the redevelopment – whatever happens – in actually selling it,” he said. “The Syttende Mai race could run right by the new facility, and it could be a natural finish line. There’s just a lot we think the community would gain by having this.”