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June 26, 2009: Willow River State Park: A dramatic expansion

A new retaining wall at the Willow River State Park beach is nearly complete. New sand will be added to the beach area as part of the expansion and improvement project at the facility. Photo by Jon Echternacht1 / 2
A brand new administration office greets visitors to Willow River State Park this season. It is part of an expansion project that includes additional campsites. Photo by Jon Echternacht2 / 2

If you haven't been inside Willow River State Park in a year or so, it has a new look.

About half-way through a $2-plus-million expansion project, the park reveals some dramatic changes on the road in, especially the new main office building.

Almost adjacent to the office is a new 50-unit campsite on the high ground.

"We are right on schedule," said park manager Darrel Richer, who was just settling into his new office last week now that filing cabinets had arrived and packing boxes could be discarded.

Immediately noticeable is the expanse of light in the new office. High windows and white walls give way to an overall pleasant atmosphere, and there is plenty of room at the check-in desk.

The shower building for the new campsite is constructed and the area is being landscaped. It should be ready for business in April 2010. "We have to plant grass and get it going before we can use it," Richer said. "If we don't get grass growing before people walk over the campsite, it will never grow."

Richer said there will be a total of 150 campsites in the 3,000-acre park when the 50-unit spot opens and a new 30-unit area is ready for business in April 2011. The previous capacity was 78 sites. The new 30-unit spot is being built around the site of the old main office that was torn down this spring.

There is a new group camping spot, and six RV-type spots in the parking lot by the lake have been eliminated and relocated.

The expansion project was part of the original plan of the park that opened in 1971. Richer said it didn't get funded until six years ago and finally got under way last September. "Sometimes I wondered if it would happen before I retired," the 57-year-old Richer said.

"People wonder how this big construction project in the middle of a down economy can happen, and we have to point out that the expansion was put in the budget a number of years ago," said Richer.

In fact, the town of Hudson site was an early candidate for expansion because it had one of the biggest turn-away rates in the state park system.

"No additional campsites were built while demand was going up," said Richer, "and campgrounds are a good source of revenue for the state."

Also the recent downturn in the economy is increasing business at Willow River. "Our sticker sales are up 40 percent," Richer said.

People are not traveling as far and are cutting back on their spending for vacations, and camping in the state park system is an economical alternative.

Down by the beach, things are more familiar but changes are also in the works.

The old railroad ties that served as a beach curb have been replaced with retaining wall blocks. Richer said when the wall is complete, new sand will be added to the beach.

New fishing piers are also on the agenda.

A restroom/shelter is planned for the picnic area along with a pedestrian bridge below the Little Falls Dam that will connect to several miles of hiking trails on the north side of the Willow River.