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Initiative aims to make Mississippi River more productive and prosperous

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 13, 2012 - Along the length of the Mississippi, from Minnesota to Louisiana, there are 124 mayor-led municipalities on the river. If those mayors can agree on policies and programs, their combined voices are much stronger than any of them together.

That's the idea behind the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, which held its first public meeting Sept. 13. Nineteen mayors gathered at the Hyatt the previous evening and earlier that morning to discuss challenges and opportunities related to the Mississippi river.

“The mayors have been very eager to be involved in this effort,” said Colin Wellenkamp, director of the MRCT. “If you’re a mayor and your city is on the waterway, the river is your greatest and best asset. Your economy depends on it, your jobs depend on it and your city needs it in a good state in order to be productive for your town.”

At a press conference, the mayors detailed the MRCTI’s focus and gave an outline of the group’s plans.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay started by outlining the ways the Mississippi River benefits the cities that line its 2,350 mile stretch. Slay cited such things as transporting natural resources like gas and petroleum, the river’s use as a source of drinking water as well as its role in supporting trade and jobs.

David Kleis, mayor of St. Cloud, Minn., talked about the river as a source of entertainment and hunting, and pointed out that the river is a shared resource.

“In the northern stem we have over 600 river recreation sites … the Mississippi river is essential to the quality of life in all of our communities,” Kleis said.

Mayor A.C. Wharton of Memphis, Tenn., said the MRCTI plans to speak with one voice on all matters dealing with the river, as well as to create a precise agenda to take to Washington, D.C., to influence policy changes.

Hyram Copeland, mayor of Vidalia, La., added to Slay’s list of the benefits while also noting the trouble such a large body of water can cause, naming floods and even ice as dangerous products the river gives off.

According to Wellenkamp, the initiative is focused on providing help to mayors and their cities for both the good and bad aspects of the river.

Created in February  2012, the MRCTI is an offshoot of a similar initiative developed by the Northeast-Midwest Institute in Washington, D.C. Ten years ago, that group brought together mayor from around the Great Lakes. And the initiatives they developed, with their pooled resources, helped restore the Great Lakes area, according to Wellenkamp.

“That effort ended up being successful in making subsequent changes to the economy and ecological condition of the great lakes,” Wellenkamp said. Funding for the MRCTI came from the Walton Foundation, which also supports Northwest-Midwest Institute.

The Mississippi River initiative is focused on both economic and environmental goals. Waterfront recreation and the trade benefits the river provides are both crucial to the nation’s economic wellbeing, according to Wellenkamp. The group also has goals set to improve floodplains, river water quality, habitat restoration and celebration of Mississippi River culture and history.

Wellenkamp said that so far the initiative has had a good run gathering mayors for the cause. The initiative now has support from 41 of those mayors with the goal of getting 50 by the end of the year.

After the meeting, Wellenkamp said the mayors will be putting together an agenda based on everything they learned, both from the earlier conferences and from federal and state officials. In March 2013 that agenda will be unveiled in Washington, D.C.

“The unique thing here is the mayors aren’t going to Washington to necessarily ask for a bunch of money,” Wellenkamp said. “This is about policy initiatives. This is about how we manage the waterway. We’re going after real regional [collaboration], which is a lot of times lost. Folks just kind of compete against each other. The mayors are here to say we don’t have to do that. We can pool each other’s resources, we can cooperate and we can build and make a difference for this waterway.”

Dan Fox is a Beacon intern.