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ICON launches Scott Avenue segment of water trails project

Leaders celebrate start of initiative's first phase with groundbreaking

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Community leaders use paddles for the ceremonial groundbreaking of the ICON Water Trails’ Scott Avenue project on Thursday. Photo by Michael Crumb.

Two years ago, the then-named Central Iowa Water Trails celebrated a concept becoming a reality. On Thursday, leaders behind the now-named ICON Water Trails and community supporters celebrated the official groundbreaking of the Scott Avenue project, the largest of the first phase of the initiative.

Under sunny skies, a steady breeze and temperatures in the 60s, they gathered along the banks of the confluence of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers near the Scott Avenue bridge to celebrate the start of work on the project that is intended to create a safer, more user-friendly area for activities from kayaking to fishing.

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Dan Houston, president and CEO of Principal Financial Group and co-chair of the ICON Water Trails board, speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony at the Scott Avenue site on Thursday. Photo by Michael Crumb.

Dan Houston, president and CEO of Principal Financial and co-chair of the ICON Water Trails board, said the wide-ranging project is a win-win for everyone.

“This is more than just about recruiting and retaining great talent in this community,” he said during Thursday’s celebration. “It’s more than just recreation. It’s about water quality. No one is losing in this project. Everyone is benefiting in a significant way.”

ICON Water Trails is a $125 million initiative that is being funded through a combination of a capital campaign and public money. It includes the development of projects that connect more than 80 sites along 150 miles of rivers and creeks in Central Iowa.

One of those funding sources is a $25 million BUILD grant that was awarded by the Federal Highway Administration to help fund projects at Scott Avenue, Prospect Park, Birdland Marina and Harriet Street in Des Moines.

The Des Moines Metropolitan Planning Organization voted in November to approve the contract for the first phase of the Scott Avenue portion of the ICON Water Trails project along the downtown Des Moines riverfront. The $40.9 million contract to United Contractors and Reilly Construction includes the in-water elements of the Scott Avenue site, including the mitigation of the low-head dam and introduction of whitewater features.

The BUILD grant will also help fund a scaled-back version of the Harriet Street portion of the project. The Prospect Park and Birdland Marina projects will be funded outside of the grant using other sources.

Polk County Supervisor Angela Connolly said that water control and quality were a top priority for county officials and that ICON Water Trails “fits the bill” for water quality and outdoor recreation.

“Water quality and preservation is of utmost priority for our county leadership, and there is tremendous synergy between existing water quality initiatives and ICON’s conservation efforts,” she said.

“Best practices and water quality are integrated into the design of ICON,” Connolly said.

According to Connolly, $3 million within the BUILD grant has been allocated for “water quality solutions.”

Hannah Inman, CEO of the Great Outdoors Foundation and interim director of ICON, recognized all those who have helped shape ICON and bring it to fruition, and acknowledged the public-private partnership that has made it possible.

“When I look at … that list, it’s just so many of the community leaders that have invested so much and it’s really an honor to be able to work with all of you and to help make this vision a reality,” she said. “Thanks to the generosity of our community as well as the tremendous support from our state and federal partners.”

To date, more than $97 million has been raised for the project, including more than $30 million in private contributions, Inman said.

And efforts are continuing to finish the private campaign and explore other “creative funding sources to accelerate the momentum that this project has created,” she said.

Inman said ICON is on pace to have significant portions of its system up and running within three years.

So far, 14 regional sites have opened with more to open this year, and the Scott Avenue project as well as the improvements to the Fleur Drive site should be operational by the end of 2026, “at which time we are projected to have the second most visited whitewater park in the country,” she said.

Jay Byers, president and CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, said the importance of outdoor recreation to economic development became even clearer during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s a lot to do in this region but during COVID nobody was inside. But people were outside, people were in the parks, people were on the water,” he said. “We’ve all known that investing in quality of place and quality of life, placemaking, is absolutely critical for economic development, talent attraction and retention, and COVID showed us it’s even more important than ever.”

“In places like Greater Des Moines and Central Iowa, we might not have the natural assets of maybe the coast or Colorado. We have to work harder to come up with amenities to really compete, and this region has really done that,” Byers said.

Byers issued a call to leverage the momentum ICON has helped bring to the region and “think bigger.”

“This system, which I think will be the premier urban-suburban trails and parks system in the country, how do we sort of market that collectively and how do we theme that with things like sustainability, outdoor recreation, placemaking, because it’s going to be a huge asset for all of us,” he said. “Today is a very special moment. We should be proud of that, but how are we going to think bigger to maximize all of that collectively?”


Michael Crumb

Michael Crumb is a senior staff writer at Business Record. He covers economic development, transportation, energy & environment, culture, sales & marketing.

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