With so many lakes in Minnesota, the Mississippi River may understandably be overlooked as a natural resource that can boost the local economy with tourism dollars.

The Minnesota Mississippi River Parkway Commission intends to change that.

Commission Director Chris Miller recently joined Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation Executive Director Karl Samp to give a presentation on Mississippi River tourism at the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce.

“Minnesota is known internationally for two things: Mall of America and the Mississippi River,” said Samp. “The Mississippi River is a crown jewel for the state of Minnesota.”

The Mississippi River flows from Itasca State Park through Brainerd, Minn., on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. (Frank Lee / Forum News Service)
The Mississippi River flows from Itasca State Park through Brainerd, Minn., on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. (Frank Lee / Forum News Service)

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Samp has been active in riverfront development efforts in Brainerd and St. Cloud “and sees continuing opportunity in promoting the region's river communities to local, state, national and international visitors,” according to Miller.

Samp said tourism spending in communities along the river is double the amount spent in other communities.

The commission’s mission is “to preserve, promote and enhance the scenic, historic and recreational resources of the Mississippi River to foster economic growth in the corridor and to develop the national, scenic and historic byway known as the 'Great River Road.’”

“We’ll also be working on a new website for the Minnesota Great River Road that will be coming in the next few months, and also an ambassador development program where we’ll be out in communities sharing more information about the Great River Road,” Miller said.

The Great River Road in Minnesota travels 565 miles following the Mississippi River on its way to the Gulf of Mexico from the headwaters in Itasca State Park.

“This commission — we focus on the Mississippi River and Great River Road from Lake Itasca to the Iowa border and then we work with our partners in nine other river states to the Gulf of Mexico and focusing on the river and all that brings to the communities along it,” Miller said.

Conceived in 1938 as the “parkway of the Mississippi River,” a collection of roads welcomes visitors “seeking authentic Mississippi River experiences as they journey through 10 states.”

“I am a river rat. I have the love of rivers running through me. I grew up as a little kid on the Des Moines River … and I’ve been on the Mississippi now for about 30 years,” Samp said.

Samp has served on the commission since 2008. He has been on the national, 10-state Mississippi River Parkway Commission Board for more than eight years, serving as a committee chair, treasurer and board chair.

According to a survey of Great River Road visitors, 75% visited or planned to visit the headwaters of the Mississippi River, most were traveling by car and 20% were traveling by bicycle, and 95% of those surveyed definitely will, or probably would, plan to visit again.

The Minnesota Great River Road Corridor Management Plan was completed in 2016, and top themes were nature and recreational activities, and top areas of focus were health and active living, facilities management and placemaking.

“There’s over 90 strategies to try to accomplish in the next 10 to 15 years in our plan,” said Carol Zoff, senior landscape architect with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Four initial projects were identified in the management plan that addressed critical traveler needs and will provide a base upon which the remaining plan implementation will be built, according to Zoff.

Those projects include improved signage because travelers were getting lost, an interactive mapping tool to plan trips for tourists, an interactive mapping tool to plan projects for the public sector and engineers, and the Great River Road Ambassador program.

If You Go

The Great River Road in Minnesota is a network of roadways offering a bounty of river experiences in a parkway setting. It spans 565 miles, 43 communities, 20 counties, three tribes and six unique destination areas, providing public access to, and promoting exploration of, the Mississippi River. The route begins at Itasca State Park, in Park Rapids. For a map and more information, visit www.mnmississippiriver.com/.