A majority of the seats were filled as the lights dimmed Wednesday evening in the Pearson Lakes Art Center’s Lauridsen Performing Arts Theatre. People had come for an update on the Imagine Iowa Great Lakes beautification project. Many attended the Imagine group’s previous presentations, but were eager to both see and hear about plans for the first phase of the project — and ask questions. The overall project aims to beautify and enhance pedestrian traffic areas along Highway 71 from Milford to Spirit Lake.

Rob Gray, principal of design consulting firm Hoerr Schaudt, reminded the audience the group expects an endowment fund will be created to cover the cost of perpetual maintenance after the project is complete.

“We didn’t want to burden any municipalities with this project,” Gray said.

Terry Lutz, seasonal Echo Bay resident and CEO of McClure Engineering, said the project’s donor group — which remains anonymous — intends to create such an endowment, but has yet to formally do so. Lutz said the bulk of the work over the next couple years will be in and around the area of Arnolds Park Amusement Park, including Lake Street, the waterfront and the sidewalk north of the green space, which the group is calling the promenade. Lutz said the public should not think of the project as a cure-all for Lakes Area issues, but rather as a catalyst for transformational change in the region.

“In general, what you can expect over the next couple of years is that we will finish up the design in the next several weeks — probably start construction later this fall — construction will go as long as we can through the winter,” Lutz said. “Next spring, we’re going to make the area that’s torn up accessible, but it probably will not be finished.”

Plantings and other projects are planned for subsequent years near major highway features like the Arnolds Park bridge, the bike trail access near the Pearson Lakes Art Center, the Boji Junction area in Milford and the intersection of Highways 9 and 71 in Spirit Lake. Gray said the group chose to start with the Arnolds Park area after foot traffic studies showed it to be a major hub of the Lakes Area. Improvements will focus on the area’s natural beauty, historic Americana and connections to the water, according to Gray.

Work along the waterfront will begin on the northwest side of the park, where the group plans to install a 10-foot wide boardwalk along the shore, as well as a decorative fire pit niche and open, grassy areas. Plans for a brick plaza and a decorative bench crafted in the familiar silhouette of the Iowa Great Lakes have been drawn up for the east side of the park, near the sand volleyball courts. The group also hopes to revisit the sidewalk extending from that area uphill to the Central Emporium. The walkway is currently split with planting in between two paths. Gray said they have designed a unified path, which would actually be wider in terms of walkable surface. He said robust meadow plantings and lake cobblestone features were selected to keep with the region’s visual vernacular, but there are no plans for large trees, as they would block the view of the lake and surrounding area.

Perhaps the biggest change is not so much physical, but perceptual. The proposed changes to Lake Street, which runs between the amusement park and the retail shops, were designed with the intent to unify the space as a plaza. Gray said the changes could open the park to new events and possibilities, like farmers markets, art shows or other locally-spawned events.

“Instead of it serving as a street and a series of sidewalks, why don’t we treat it as a singular space? A lot times it’s closed off to cars anyway,” Gray said. “By making it one singular plaza, you provide a lot more flexibility in its design.”

Gray shared design concepts for hanging lanterns and additional brickwork along the street intended to foster a sense communal celebration. The drawings also showed the addition of a central planting in the street’s turnabout near the state pier. Gray said the planting will visually break up the wide expanse of concrete. One audience member said he was unsure if fire engines would be able to navigate the turnaround with the planting in place. Lutz invited representatives of the local fire department to contact the design committee and discuss the concern. Gray guided the audience through other ideas for changes on the state pier, including a fountain feature and suspended sails to provide shade. Gray did specify the team plans to reuse the bricks which are currently part of the pier and engraved with the names of donors.

Lutz expects an update on construction will take place next spring, and he said the team may have some concepts of improvements to the Arnolds Park bridge to share.

Click Here to see the plans.