116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Boaters, paddlers and spectators from around the state and potentially the region may eventually enjoy an ambitious slate of recreational amenities in the Cedar River through the 5-in-1 Dam below Interstate 380.
The city is exploring a $14.6 million project to modify the dam to offer white-water and flat-water features in separate channels, with complementary amenities such as zip lining and an island for spectators. As the city re-imagines what its relationship with the Cedar River could be, and makes it a hub for water-based recreation, officials are envisioning the potential to attract visitors and spur development.
“This is another amazing recreational opportunity for Cedar Rapids and I believe it really will draw people and draw people here to move here, live here and work here, so it’s an exciting project,” Mayor Brad Hart said Tuesday at a City Council meeting.
This preliminary proposal, which still is in the design and planning phase, comes from results of a River Recreation Feasibility and Implementation Study that Cedar Rapids initiated in 2019. The city contracted with Crane Associates for almost $150,000 to conduct the study, which reviewed the dams, dredging and other factors to determine what is feasible, how much implementation would cost, how it could be phased in over time and the potential economic impact the activities could create.
The option the consultants recommended “creates an enjoyable and safe experience for a wide range of users from beginners to people who have a lot of experience with white-water,” city planner Syvia Brueckert told the council.
This design directs a small portion of river flows from upstream into a channel at the dam’s western opening and provides two passageways catered to paddlers of different skill levels. Both channels merge and return to the river upstream of the First Avenue Bridge.
The five to 10 waves created on the white-water run “are first-class quality and suitable for national competitions and river festivals,” the firm’s report states.
The study found that if the city looks beyond only a primary market with a 125-mile radius, which includes Eastern Iowa and Des Moines, it could attract overnight visitors from a much larger population than the 3.3 million people living in the day-trip primary market.
To tap into this secondary regional market, the consultants advised that this recreational amenity be combined with other amenities and attractions in the area. This regional market, spanning a 250-mile radius including Chicago and Minneapolis, is almost 10 times larger with a population of 29 million — meaning Cedar Rapids would reap greater economic benefits.
By attracting both markets, Cedar Rapids:
- Doubles user days to 129,579 compared with 65,384
- Spurs an estimated economic contribution ranging from $5.4 to $11.5 million compared with $1.3 to $2.7 million
- More than triples job creation with an estimated 84 to 179 jobs
While attracting the secondary market is not an “insurmountable hurdle,“ the Cranes Associates report states, it requires more planning, a clear strategy and additional help from the private sector. Those taking a river trip desire a full experience including rapids, waves, eddies, scenic views, peaceful floating, conversations with friends, picnics and nature watching, it says.
“To attract paddlers from the secondary market area, the boater must be willing to drive 250 miles, or about 3.5 hours,” according to the report. “We know from survey data and experience that they will not travel this far for a park and play experience, but they will for a river trip. They also will travel this distance for events and river festivals.”
In addition to the bypass channel, the area could include spectator conveniences such as seating, concession and picnic areas, the consultants recommend. According to the firm’s report summary, studies show that for every paddler in the water, there are six to eight spectators, so the city should aim to attract larger groups with diverse interests.
The firm also recommended:
- Removal or modification of the C Street SW roller dam near Tait Cummins Memorial Park to allow downstream passage and create a Class II rapid
- Design beach areas between the dam and McGrath Amphitheatre to allow for wading in the river with small children
- Maintain the upstream pool above the 5-in-1 Dam at its current 717-foot elevation
Construction of the white-water park would be compatible with the city’s growing flood control system, the firm found.
Assistant Community Development Director Bill Micheel said the city is working to identify potential funding resources. “Obviously a project of this size would not be done with only local funding but a range of funding options and opportunities,” Micheel said.
Because this study was focused on determining the feasibility of river recreation, there is no timeline yet for construction. Micheel said the next phases will focus on additional public input and early design concepts.
The city has included a 5-in-1 Dam bypass channel in its request for $39.5 million in state aid through the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Reinvestment District program. Cedar Rapids' proposal calls for an estimated overall investment exceeding $261 million across six projects in the city, which the city expects would generate nearly $7 million a year in property taxes and fuel development downtown.
The 5-in-1 Dam was installed in 1978 to replace a municipal dam completed in 1918. It includes a no-longer active hydroelectric function as well as bridges for I-380, E Avenue and F Avenue, and the dam itself. The dam controls upstream water levels for recreation around Ellis Harbor.
Council member Ashley Vanorny, who serves on the council’s Development Committee, said the study’s results have been a “long time coming.”
“I feel like this really marries all of the things that we’ve heard our residents speak about,” Vanorny said. “It brings in that healthy relationship with the river and allows for recreation that people have been wanting.”
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