Donors back scenic highway beauty

Tuesday, June 5, 2018
Graphics submitted

The main artery through the Lakes Area will become a bit more scenic in the future, thanks to a group of anonymous donors. Approximately $10 million will be put toward the first phase of a beautification project being called Imagine Iowa Great Lakes. The project is expected to run along Highway 71 from Spirit Lake to Milford.

Project renderings reveal plans for public art installations, fences, decorative plantings and lamp posts fitted with hanging flower baskets. Des Moines based McClure Engineering is heading up a team of entities for the project, including Beck Engineering, Blink Marketing and a Chicago business called Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects. Terry Lutz, with McClure engineering, is a seasonal resident of the Lakes Area and presented plans for the Imagine Iowa Great Lake project to the Iowa Great Lakes Association on May 29. Lutz indicated the project would likely progress through three phases at a total cost of approximately $31 million. He was unsure if the same group of donors would be funding the latter phases. Work is expected to begin this fall and continue into the spring of 2019.

Lutz emphasized to the association the project will be a private undertaking by a non-profit, but will work with entities, such as city government, county officials, the Iowa Department of Transportation and the Department of Natural Resources. Most of the beautification will be limited to stretches of road between Highway 71's intersections with Highway 9 in Spirit Lake and Highway 86 in Milford.

"This is meant to enhance everything in this corridor," Bethany Wilcoxon, vice principal of community planning with McClure, said.

The enhancements meant for the project's first phase include landscape improvements near the bridge between East and West Lake Okoboji, a section of Lake Street near the Central Emporium in Arnolds Park, the highway's curve near Denver Avenue in Spirit Lake and the Arnolds Park Amusement Park main intersection and waterfront, according to materials from the IGL Association. Graphics from the project's Facebook page indicate the first phase will cover three of the six zone-types identified in the project. The bridge area merited it's own zone for the project. Materials for the project describe the area as a distinct vantage point surrounded by water but overgrown vegetation has blocked some of the scenic views.

"Sometimes, in the Lakes Area, you forget the lakes are so nearby," Wilcoxon said.

She said the public may provide input, such as their opinion on several examples of bridge enhancements, through the project's Facebook page. The overall project will hopefully help restore a sense of the wild to the Lakes Area through various plantings and other features that focus on pedestrian traffic, according to Wilcoxon.

"It'll be at different levels throughout the corridor," Wilcoxon said.

She said right now the areas along the highway are, of course, heavily focused on vehicle traffic.

As for future phases, the project's preliminary map calls for a stronger connection between the amusement park's waterfront, which it indicates may be the heaviest pedestrian zone in the study area, and the pedestrian-friendly emporium.

The nearby Okoboji Middle School building had been said to be a point of interest in a proposed beautification project, assuming the district's proposed bond issue for a new building was passed by the public which it was in April. However, Wilcoxon said no steps have been taken to purchase the school property.

"That is a completely separate project" she said. "We're really focused on the beautification."

Okoboji School Board President Bob Hanson confirmed the district is looking at various methods of selling the property and said the board had no new information to pass along at this time.

Elsewhere, the Imagine Iowa Great Lakes project intends to use the wider commercial setbacks found in western Spirit Lake, northern Okoboji and northern Milford, for pedestrian and landscape improvements. More specific and targeted beautification will be discussed for the highway project's two urban zones in southern Okoboji and Arnolds Park. Two natural zones one south of Spirit Lake and the other north of Milford will also be included along the less populated stretches of the highway. Minimal enhancements are planned for the meadows and woodlands in these zones.

Lutz indicated an endowment was requested by the anonymous group of donors for the purposes of maintaining the improvements. He said the endowment could potentially start being funded as soon as next year. He said the project team is suggesting an endowment between $5 to $6 million.

"There's no way we can expect the local cities or county to pay for what's probably a $300,000 or $400,000 annual budget to keep this stuff alive and looking good, he said.

Lutz noted the donors are not seeking to fund infrastructure changes along the highway, but would be supportive of at least one round-a-bout when changes are made in the future.

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