CHARLES CITY — The waves here are wide, making an ideal playground for a sport kayaker, such as Dave Messer, of Morton, Ill.
The Cedar River crashes over an 11-foot tall dam and then crests over three separate drops spread a few hundred feet apart on the man-made, white-water course in the middle of Charles City, a declining railroad and tractor town in the flatlands of north-central Iowa about 50 miles north of Waterloo and 40 miles south of the Minnesota state line.
“There’s no place like it near where I live,” said Messer, recapping the limitations of other options closer to home. “Here, you have something to do in all water levels, and each drop is a little different — different characteristics. “This is just a jewel.”
The sensation is an “adrenaline rush,” and for many Midwesterners, Charles City is the best, closest place to come play.
Messer is among countless tourists who’ve discovered Charles City since the white-water course opened in 2011. Community leaders, struggling with loss of businesses and population, decided to think big and invest $2 million to retrofit its key natural resource — the Cedar River and the riverfront — into a recreational amenity to attract visitors and dollars and give locals a reason to stay.
As a public waterway, the white-water feature is always open and free to use.
Messer on his Jackson playboat — a short, stubby, blue-and-white kayak designed to perform technical maneuvers and tricks from a still position in the water — glides over the first drop. A few people watch from the riverside park.
Messer steers off into an eddy on the side, spins the boat around and paddles back upstream toward the rapid. Jabbing the left blade of the oar into the water repeatedly and with a few strokes on the right side to balance out, he faces the current head on. He balanced there for a moment. The boat sits on top of the wave as water shoots by.
Soon, the power of the river is too great and sucks him safely into the whitecaps.
Course designers had playboat kayakers in mind, but tubers, traditional kayakers and fisherman all are common users.
Messer has been making the four-and-half-hour drive from Morton to Charles City for 10 years. Early on, it was just he and a friend, then a third person joined, and this past year the third friend brought her grandchildren for tubing while the adults kayak. They usually camp in tents nearby and grab meals in town.
“It is a nice city,” he said. “I feel safe leaving stuff at my car.”
‘All we were doing was mowing it’
Thirteen years ago, Charles City was struggling. Industry and retail sectors were reeling with vacant storefronts and plants closing or moving operations elsewhere. The population was shrinking as people left or died. Flooding had wiped out a neighborhood along the river.
Charles City and other small communities across Iowa and the country that are fighting for their future — rather than ignoring it — have been working to identify their niche. What makes them unique? In some cases, it’s the arts or history or entrepreneurs or a natural resource.
Charles City leaders examined their assets and recognized their greatest differentiator was the river flowing under the Main Street bridge, through the core of town. Acres of land also were sitting idle along the river where flooded homes had been bought out and demolished.
They decided to make an investment to improve the natural resource, and meanwhile tap into a growing recreational tourism market driven by 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds with disposable incomes and a willingness to travel.
“We have a perfect setting, a perfect drop in elevation, and it happens to be in the middle of downtown instead of 10 miles out in a cornfield,” said Bob Kloberdanz, an insurance professional who spearheaded the white-water effort as then-head of the parks board. “We had 28 acres of flood mitigation property in the heart of our downtown, and all we were doing was mowing it. Everybody that comes to town says, ‘You’ve got a beautiful river,’ and we never utilized it.
“So we all agreed, if we’re going to do something big, let’s do it along the river downtown.”
Other communities — Elkader on the Turkey and Manchester on the Maquoketa — have followed suit removing dams and creating white-water destinations in their downtown.
Get rid of the ‘beauty dam’
The whole effort originated with a vision to attract visitors from nearby highways through shortwave radio signal. That led to a successful effort to approve use of a hotel-motel tax and ultimately a surplus of money from which the leaders, such as Kloberdanz, decided to dream big.
A plan evolved to remove a dangerous 7-foot “beauty dam,” which had claimed the life of a boy years earlier, and work with white-water-course designers to reshape the river. The riverfront would be redeveloped to include an amphitheater, picnic shelters with electricity, a stormwater fountain, a labyrinth, boat launch and pay area.
Leaders started writing grant applications, securing $600,000 from the state’s Great Places Program, $475,000 from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources low-head dam removal program, $375,000 in private donations, and at least $200,000 from hotel-motel tax dollars.
The low-head dam removal and white-water course cost approximately $1 million of the $2 million overall budget. And, Kloberdanz noted, aside from an $11,000 investment for cleanup a year after construction was completed, the white-water course has cost the community nothing.
Soon the buzz would attract kayakers and tubers. Fishermen, once the biggest critics, still had ample opportunities for their sport. The new grounds and river provided a nexus for new events, including the Charles City Whitewater Challenge and the Hooligan River Run. And the Iowa Games now holds water sport events there.
They bring hundreds of visitors to Charles City just to have a good time in the water.
In June, tour buses of AARP members traveled from Cedar Rapids and Des Moines to Charles City because it recently was designated as an Iowa “Age-Friendly Community.” They explored the park and observed festivities on the white-water course during the Whitewater Challenge, as well as other amenities in town. The park was designed for all abilities with Americans with Disabilities Act accessible pathways right up to the river.
While an 11-foot dam still exists about 800 feet upstream from the course, the white-water portion is far safer with the “beauty” dam gone, he said. While it bears the risk that comes with any swift-moving waterway, no deaths or serious injuries have occurred since it opened, according to Kloberdanz and IowaWhitewater.org.
Attention from all corners
The course has gained attention well beyond Iowa’s borders in publications and through word-of-mouth. Kloberdanz has spoken around the country, often about how a community can be resilient in the face of flooding or other natural disasters.
The new layout with the riverfront park provides plenty of room for the Cedar River to rise and fall, with the main damage being cleaning up the muck and at times reseeding the grass.
While it has put Charles City on the map in some respects, the broader economic impacts have been a mixed bag.
The new St. Charles Brewing Co. recently opened a block from the river and Cedar River Pizza Co. opened in 2015. River users also support Rapids End Outfitters and Live Bait, as well as a couple of restaurants nearby. An economic impact of $765,000 annually, estimated by an Iowa State University economist, is cited.
But the improvements haven’t reversed Charles City’s population decline. Now at 7,369, the population has been on a steady decline since the 1950s and is down nearly 6 percent since 2000. Vacancies continue to dot the business district, and Lidd & Cordray, a menswear store on Main Street, recently closed after 130 years when the fourth-generation owner retired.
“I think it is nice people come and use the course, but, other than that, it’s not much impact for us,” said Elizabeth Sullivan, a longtime resident and stylist at Accents Salon.
Still, you wouldn’t necessarily expect a salon to see a boost from white-water course visitors, she added.
Other places such as Aromas coffee shop and Hot Shots Billiards see traffic from visitors to the river, staff said. It’s not overwhelming, but a few patrons a week will stop in for a drink or lunch, and a handful of times a year during a special event they’ll see more traffic, said Ashley Pahnisch, a bartender at Hot Shots.
“I think we get some business,” she said. “It is not a huge difference, but 10 extra people a week is 10 people.”
Regardless of the economic impact, locals such as Pahnisch and Sullivan say they are glad the course is built. They don’t often use it themselves but do enjoy coming to watch others.
“It is pretty to look at it,” Pahnisch said. “No town around here has one. It is an attraction for people to get out of the house, plus all the people who come to town to use the course.”
“It looks like something you’d find in a nicer, bigger community,” Sullivan said.
“We need to do more to invest. Even if no one is kayaking, it looks better than it did with the dam.”
Bill Menner, executive director of the Bill Menner Group, an Iowa-based consulting firm specializing in rural development initiatives, said Charles City comes up often as an innovator, but that doesn’t mean impact results don’t take time. Just because results aren’t instantaneous, efforts still can pay off, he said.
“I still advocate for communities to find their niche,” Menner said. “It might be people in Charles City are not going to use the white-water course, but what business comes that might not have? What would be the cost of inaction? I always advocate for action rather than inaction.”
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