Des Moines taxpayers’ tab for water trails grows 12-fold

By: - January 9, 2021 11:00 am

This stretch of the Des Moines River in downtown Des Moines would be more accessible to kayakers as part of a $117 million water trails plan. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Des Moines taxpayers’ share of the cost of the first four downtown Des Moines water trails projects is 12 times the original estimate and now stands at $6 million, a key city official said. 

City Manager Scott Sanders in August said the city would spend $500,000 on water trails, which would improve access to the Des Moines River and include some rapids for kayaking. He feared the first four projects would exhaust that money.

They did.

Now, the city staff has proposed using $6 million in property taxes, spread over five years, for its share of the initial work on accesses, kayaking areas and related facilities, said Assistant City Manager Pam Cooksey. The spending will not increase the city’s tax rate, she added.

The first set of Des Moines projects were expected to cost $32 million. They are part of a $117 million regional effort to improve river recreation.

The initial work in Des Moines would improve access to the Des Moines River at Prospect Park, Birdland Park, and Harriett Street, and at Scott Avenue, where a low-head dam would be modified and kayaking runs created.

The most expensive and elaborate project, the proposed $35 million replacement of the deadly Center Street dam with competition-caliber whitewater kayak runs, is not included in the $6 million initial tally for the city.

The nonprofit overseeing the regional water trails project has raised more than $17 million privately and received a $25 million federal grant.

In an interview, Cooksey said the water trails — which community leaders consider a key to Des Moines businesses’ recruiting efforts and the overall quality of life in the capital city — have been the subject of difficult negotiations over liability and maintenance. 

At one point, Cooksey said, she thought the initiative would fizzle.

“Three months ago, I would say we’d never get there,” Cooksey said. “I think we will get there, it’s just a matter of getting those agreements worked through.”

Congress recently extended by a year the deadline for the project to use the $25 million federal grant, to September 2022. That means more time to complete negotiations, if it’s needed, Cooksey said.

That does not mean the projects are delayed a year, she said. The city expects final designs for the first four Des Moines projects to be submitted to federal officials by June for review.

The Scott Avenue dam would be replaced with a series of drops for kayaking as part of the Central Iowa Water Trails plan. (Illustration courtesy of Central Iowa Water Trails Incubator)

Cooksey said it may be late 2023 before the Scott Avenue project is done. Depending on river levels and the wishes of a contractor that hasn’t been selected yet, the other three areas could open a bit earlier. Design and permit work is underway, and construction is expected to begin next year, she said. 

The Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization expects the letting of the bids for the projects late this year, with construction running from 2022 into 2023, CEO Todd Ashby said. 

New restrooms have been removed from the city’s plans to save expenses, Cooksey said. Birdland and Prospect have restrooms already.

City officials have been in months of negotiations in an unusual partnership that is considerably more complicated than your typical street project, said Cooksey, a former city engineer.

“This project is really unique and somewhat awkward,” Cooksey said. The city owns the property for three of the sections, and will own the improvements. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has the lease at Prospect Park. 

“Probably a lot of our discussions have been about how much ability we have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ knowing we are going to be the owner,” Cooksey said. “So it’s been an interesting conversation, I guess.

“The city is not leading or administering or designing the project,” Cooksey said.

Backers of the project are the nonprofit Central Iowa Water Trails, overseen by some of Des Molines’ top corporate and civic leaders; the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization; and the Capital Crossroads regional planning effort. 

Cooksey said questions remain over whether the city is liable. “I do not know the the answer to that,” Cooksey said. “It’s a recreational type of asset where the liability is a little bit different. The agreements have not been worked out as to where all those items fall.”

Ashby said project leaders still are negotiating details of maintenance and liability.

The replacement of the Center Street dam with kayak runs is a centerpiece of a water trails plan. (Image courtesy of Central Iowa Water Trails Incubator)

In August, City Councilman Joe Gatto said early discussions had the city committing $20 million to $25 million over perhaps 20 years, and $2 million a year for maintenance. He questioned whether the city could back the entire water trails project while at the same time keeping its promises to voters who approved a local sales tax increase.

“I think it’s a great project. I think it’s a game-changer,” Gatto said. “But we’ve got to look at what’s in our budget as the city of Des Moines, what we promised the neighborhoods we’re going to put back into the neighborhoods and this wasn’t part of it. We’ve made significant cuts to our (capital improvements budget) this year alone, of things we promised our residents.

“So it’s hard for me to stand on the mountaintops and scream that this is going to happen,” Gatto said. 

The work to replace Center Street dam with a more advanced whitewater course depends on private fundraising and will come later, Cooksey said. That work is now being coordinated with the Lauridsen Skatepark, which is near the Center Street dam and expected to open this year. The two attractions are expected to be linked by trails.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.