Areas near the Scott Street dam would offer more tranquil paddling. Rendering provided
Areas near the Scott Street dam would offer more tranquil paddling. Rendering provided
The U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded a $25 million grant to the Central Iowa water trails project, setting up major construction if backers raise the local match as expected. They’ll need to cover the balance of the $31.25 million first phase.

The Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grant for the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is the first construction money raised and would pay for 80% of the cost of replacing the Scott Street dam with a whitewater course and other paddling areas, as well as improved access to the Des Moines River at Prospect Park, Birdland Park and at Harriett Street. The $25 million grant was the maximum available from that program. 

Leaders of the Central Iowa Water Trails Incubator recently reported they have raised $5 million to do engineering and permit work for the initial projects in a $117 million regional effort that involves plans for 86 access areas along 155 miles of Central Iowa waterways and associated water-quality improvements. 

Merrick & Co. has estimated the downtown projects involving the removal of three low-head dams downtown that have been deadly obstacles would end up being an economic boost of $26 million to $32 million by year five of the whitewater courses that would draw thousands of paddlers and onlookers.

The Scott Avenue dam will be replaced with two drops for paddling and improved fish passage, the MPO reported. 

Iowa’s congressional delegation helped lobby for the grant. The effort also involves Capital Crossroads, the Central Iowa Water Trails Incubator,  Catch Des Moines, Great Outdoors Foundation, Greater Des Moines Partnership and Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines. 

“I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it until we’re done: This is happening,”  Dan Houston, chairman, president and CEO of Principal and board chairman of the Central Iowa Water Trails Incubator, said in a statement. “I can say this with complete confidence because of the tremendous support and partnerships of the many individuals and organizations backing this transformational quality-of-life project. And today we are witness to the depth of that support, which reaches to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Iowa congressional delegation, to whom we are so deeply grateful for this grant.” 

In an interview, Polk County Supervisor Matt McCoy said the grant resulted from a bipartisan effort by Iowa’s congressional delegation and is likely to spur more public and private funding. “This will be the spark that ignites the whole system,” said McCoy, who serves both on the MPO executive committee and the board of the Central Iowa Water Trails Incubator that is guiding the project. The grant “absolutely” will assure people that the project will become reality, he added.

“There is so much community excitement about this,” McCoy added. 

West Des Moines Mayor Steve Gaer issued a statement lauding the progress in the regional project, which includes major waterway projects in his own community. 

“We’re very proud of the MPO staff for nurturing this game-changing project since its infancy,” said Gaer, chairman of the MPO board. “We are incredibly grateful to the many partners from the public and private sectors who have rallied behind this vision and are pushing it into implementation.”

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said the project has elements in all four wards of the city, but also is a big deal for the rest of the state. The large grant from construction takes a well-crafted dream and makes it a reality, he said.  

“I feared we would have difficulty raising $10 million,” Cownie said. “When you start seeing a substantial amount of money for construction, it is not a dream anymore. This is going to happen. This is a great opportunity for our city to move forward with this project much quicker than anticipated. It’s huge.”

Hannah Inman, who has led fundraising for the water trails in her leadership role at Great Outdoors Foundation, said the grant emphasizes the public-private nature of the project. As reported in the Business Record, backers have already raised $5 million privately for design and permit work on the three main projects downtown. Overall, private backers plan to raise as much as $38 million privately for the project. 

Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley said the project will be important to the Central Iowa economy. “This project will ultimately help attract and retain both businesses and people in Central Iowa,” Grassley said in a statement. $117 million public-private regional project.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne said the project “will greatly enhance recreation opportunities and spur economic growth throughout central Iowa” while improving safety along the rivers. 

What’s this all about? Read our recent stories about the water trails project fundraising topping $5 million and the prominent community leaders calling it “the biggest project yet.”