We should know more by fall about the vision for turning the Des Moines River downtown into an attraction for canoeists, kayakers, bird-watchers, fishing enthusiasts and others.

McLaughlin Whitewater Group, with subcontractors RDG Planning & Design and HDR, has started a study to figure out what is technically possible at the sites of the Center Street and Scott Street low-head dams, which have been both hazardous and a barrier to recreation. A former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staffer is on the team to make sure the plans stay within regulations. And we'll have a better idea on the price tags for, say, some kind of paddling course through the area.

ISG Engineering and Architecture will focus on projects proposed in the rest of the 150 miles of river stretches in Central Iowa.

Initial findings will be available by early fall — after some summer update meetings — with final designs and cost estimates done by early next year.

The consultants were asked to submit three options and cost estimates for downtown Des Moines, and consider needs for restrooms, parking, emergency services, bait vending, food and a proposed barge. There's talk of a bed and breakfast near Van Meter and Booneville, too.

Hubbell Realty Co. President and CEO Rick Tollakson, who has led a local advisory committee working on the project, said the business community appears interested in helping to raise money for the improvements — which could be in the $50 million to $100 million range just in the immediate Des Moines area. There is hope the Corps of Engineers will help bankroll some of the work.

"If we are going to go out and raise money, we need to know what the projects look like, if they are feasible and what they will cost," Tollakson said. That's what the study is about.

The Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has been coordinating the planning, along with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Tollakson and Greater Des Moines Partnership CEO Jay Byers have talked about traveling to Columbus, Ga., which has a whitewater run on a river similar to the Des Moines River. Boise, Idaho, has surfing on a river.

The effort to improve recreation is a key quality of life initiative that is one way to fight unemployment rates so low it's extremely hard to hire workers, said Tollakson, who routinely has a couple dozen positions open at Hubbell Realty.

"What good does it do to attract business when there are no workers?" Tollakson asked. "We are trying hard to attract workforce. We have to get people to want to live here."

Tollakson said the city of Johnston has been busy developing ideas on how to make it easier to use Beaver Creek for paddling

Dr. Richard Deming chairs the Leadership Circle of the Greater Des Moines Community Foundation, which gave $205,000 for the feasibility study and is expecting to be asked to give more.

"The Leadership Circle comes together to do some real innovative, catalyst grants to try to get things off the ground," Deming said. "It's about water. It's about recreation. It's about economic development.

"I live a block away from the river," said Deming, a triathlete who is medical director at Mercy Cancer Center. "If we can make that downtown part of the river open to people actually being in the river between the two low-head dams, making the river accessible, that could be a game changer for how we view the river downtown. You get to be part of nature and you get to see that everything is interconnected. It's adventure fitness."

Study supporters:
Total: $508,000
Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, $30,000
Greater Des Moines Partnership, $30,000
Polk County Conservation Board, $30,000
Des Moines Area Realtors, $16,500
Leadership Circle, Greater Des Moines Community Foundation, $205,000
(Among the members: Dr. Richard Deming, Fred and Charlotte Hubbell, Mark and Jill Oman, Fred Weitz, Kyle and Sharon Krause, Jim and Patty Cownie)
Local governments: $196,500
(Altoona, Ankeny, Bondurant, Carlisle, Clive, Des Moines, Grimes, Johnston, Mitchellville, Norwalk, Pleasant Hill, Urbandale, Waukee, West Des Moines, Windsor Heights, Polk County, Van Meter, Warren County.)