This is really saying something.

After all the projects over the decades — Wells Fargo Arena, the sculpture park, Western Gateway, Principal Riverwalk — the four co-chairs of the Central Iowa Water Trails Incubator’s Campaign Advisory Council say the regional effort to line 155 miles of waterways with 86 well-planned fun spots is the biggest effort yet. 

“This is the most significant project that I have worked or watched in my entire life in Central Iowa,” said Steve Zumbach, a longtime community and business leader and a lawyer at Belin McCormick. 

I sat down with the four water trails project leaders — Steve Chapman, Suku Radia, Steve Zumbach and Allison Fleming — to ask why they are supporting the project and what it means to the area. 

When Greater Des Moines Partnership CEO Jay Byers calls it the most transformative project we’ve seen, he’d get no argument from them.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” Chapman said. “We’ve done everything we could to stimulate economic developments in this community. And almost all of it has been bricks and mortar. I mean, the people of Central Iowa can be extremely proud of what Des Moines has become. But we have spent no time going back and doing what is right with our natural resources. 

“This is actually a project that’s going to address the quality of our waterways,” Chapman added. “Not only that, we are going to add an element of entertainment and recreation that is going to be unique in Central Iowa. When I look at this project, it’s an economic development project.” 

Radia, retired CEO of Bankers Trust, who said he had to leave the meeting early to ask a large company for a major donation, said water trails build on riverfront development, improvements at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, and the success of Drake University. “This dovetails very nicely with the Principal Riverwalk, and I think that is why [Principal chief] Dan Houston is so excited about this project,” Radia said. Houston co-chairs the overall water trails committee.

Radia said working on another big project with Chapman and Zumbach is like a reunion. “This is going to be a little like the Blues Brothers. I’m coming on to make sure that the band gets back together.” Fleming grew up here; the three men at the table have been leaders in town for more than 50 years. 

Part of it is luring people back to Des Moines, said Fleming, a philanthropist who is active with the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines.

“I love what Des Moines has become, and all the things we have here,” Fleming said. “Look at the World Food Prize, and the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park. Look at the fabulous nonprofits we have here doing such great things. I want to see Des Moines keep growing. One of the things we have to do is keep offering wonderful amenities to encourage people to move here or stay here. Very selfishly, I have four grandchildren that live in the area and I want them to go out and see the world and experience it. But I want them to choose to come back to Des Moines. And I think this is the type of amenity that will make them choose to come back.

“The studies have shown that for every person out there surfing, there will be seven watching on the bank. I will be watching on the bank, but I hope my grandkids will be out there doing all those things,” Fleming said. 

All four leaders noted that the attention to the river will mean more serious talk of cleaning Iowa’s waterways. One of the key players in the project, Hannah Inman of the Great Outdoors Foundation, said the water trails group is working with Polk County Conservation, Iowa State University, the University of Iowa, Des Moines Water Works and others to check data on bacteria and other pollutants such as toxins from blue-green algae. Early reports are that the water is fully safe at least 90% of the time in the Des Moines River downtown, she said. 

Nitrate, one of the biggest pollutants, is not a threat to swimmers or kayakers but rather to those consuming untreated water. Des Moines Water Works removes nitrate from drinking water or blends sources to ensure levels are safe and within federal standards. 

The project will remove three of the biggest threats to people’s safety — the three low-head dams downtown, which have claimed at least 16 lives. They will be replaced with much safer whitewater courses that consultants say would cost $106 million upfront, but by year five would bring an annual economic boost of $26 million to $32 million.

The downtown courses are expected to be in place in three to five years, Inman said. 

Talent attraction and retention
Much of the support for the water trails project, including that of Rick Tollakson of Hubbell Realty Co., one of the most active supporters, is based on the idea that it will help attract and keep workers and residents in Greater Des Moines.

Radia explained it this way. 

“Whenever you talk to a new CEO, someone who’s been recruited, you ask what was it [that made them take the job here]. ‘Well, when I was first called by the search firm, I thought, Des Moines? The next thing, I get here and I find out what the community stands for, and what it has become, based on what my experience here, it was a no-brainer.’ More often than not, they will say they had lunch with someone from a major company. This is a darn sight better than where we were. ‘I hear about this water trails project; what is that about?’ And, you know, it is really amazing how much this helps us in terms of attraction and retention. So this is transformational in that sense.”

Zumbach said the Principal Riverwalk and the Lauridsen Skatepark along the Des Moines River, and now the planned paddling areas for people of varied skill levels, finally will have the city’s residents using a river that for decades was girdled by the levees, largely out of sight, and little-used save for crew teams, fishing enthusiasts and as a tap water source. 

“We didn’t understand that the water was an amenity,” Zumbach said. “It was an afterthought in our town. We simply missed that for 30, 40, 50 years, that that was our most important resource.”

Said Fleming: “It’s our mountains. It’s our ocean.”

Lessons from past projects
These leaders have worked many big projects. Do they see things they’ve learned from the other work that would inform the water trails effort? 

“I wish that Mr. Ruan, Mr. Fitzgibbon and Mr. Kruidenier could have seen this,” Chapman said. “They didn’t accept failure. We wouldn’t have a Civic Center if it weren’t for them. [Voters turned the project down in a bond referendum.] They looked at each other and said, ‘We’ll build it anyway. Because we know in order to start, we’ve got to be bold and we’ve got to make it happen. Suku, Steve and I sat with those leaders on projects, and we sat quietly and we did what we were told. They always said to us, you’re not going to be able to write a check as big as ours, but you are going to write a check. Someday, your check will grow. They taught our generation how to lead within the community.” 

“This project is big, its bold, and it will succeed, and it will succeed because of the values that they instilled in the leaders of this community today,” Chapman said. “When they first came to me, I went, ‘Really? With everything else that’s going on in Des Moines and we are all involved with other fundraisers, we are going to raise $33.5 million [privately] and then raise another $84 million?’ But the reality is, yes, Central Iowa will succeed, and the reason Central Iowa will succeed is the commitment and quality of the leadership in this community.”

All four said the project is likely to draw people from around the state, and added that water trail projects are being pursued in both rural and urban areas around Iowa. 

Fleming said she has worked on the Water Works Park rejuvenation, Jester Park and Hoyt Sherman Place’s restoration and expansion. “People respond because they believe in the Greater Des Moines area and the way we’re moving forward.” 

Said Zumbach: “The can-do attitude in this community is just, it’s been proven. We can do it. And yes, these are big, bold ideas, but this community knows how to respond to big, bold ideas. And this is a big, bold idea.”


Central Iowa Water Trails Incubator
The Great Outdoors Foundation formed Central Iowa Water Trails Incubator LLC. The foundation is leading the fundraising. Capital Crossroads is serving as the umbrella organization over the committee structure. Others providing staffing include Catch Des Moines, the city of Des Moines, the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, the Des Moines Area MPO, the Greater Des Moines Partnership and Polk County.

Board of directors

Dan Houston, Principal Financial Group, chairman

Kathryn Kunert, MidAmerican Energy Co., vice chairwoman

Rick Tollakson, Hubbell Realty Co., treasurer

Tom Mahoney, retired, ITA Group, secretary

Capital Crossroads Tri-Chairs 

Jay Byers, Greater Des Moines Partnership

Angela Connolly, Polk County

Kristi Knous, Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines

Members

Todd Ashby, Des Moines Area MPO

Pat Boddy, Great Outdoors Foundation

Jake Christensen, Christensen Development

Chris Coleman, city of Des Moines/BBB

Joe Corfits, Great Outdoors Foundation

Frank Cownie, city of Des Moines

Angela Dethlefs-Trettin, Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines

Greg Edwards, Catch Des Moines

Thaddeus Franklin, Assessment Solutions LLC

Tom Hadden, city of West Des Moines

Hannah Inman, Great Outdoors Foundation

Sid Juwarker, Terracon

John Lawrence, Iowa State University

Matt McCoy, Polk County

Ben McLean, Ruan

Gerry Neugent, Knapp Properties

Dean O’Connor, city of Altoona 

PHATE, graffiti writer

Julie Stewart, Prairie Meadows

Nikki Syverson, Capital Crossroads

Tiffany Tauscheck, Greater Des Moines Partnership

Campaign Advisory Council

Honorary co-chairs

Jim Cownie

Bill Knapp

Connie Wimer

Campaign co-chairs

Steve Chapman

Allison Fleming

Suku Radia

Steve Zumbach


Members

Jim Brannen

Robert Brownell

Joyce Chapman

Linda Koehn

Tom Koehn

Kyle Krause

Sharon Krause

Steve Lacy

Gene Meyer

Libby Nelson

Jeff Rommel

Fred Weitz

Strategy team

Matt Anderson

Sarah Boese

Jen Cross

Angela Dethlefs-Trettin

Trina Flack

Mary Jo Franklin

Alex Hassel

Hannah Inman

Brock Konrad

Laura McNichols

Gunnar Olson

Kyle Oppenhuizen

Nikki Syverson

Tiffany Tauscheck

Staci Williams

Andrea Woodard