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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Ross Rambles: Iowa's 'Vision' needs checked

Friday, February 11, 2005

Voters in Storm Lake approved a $3.5 million bond issue by 74 percent, overwhelmingly supporting the ambitious Project Awaysis.

The voters decided to take advantage of an opportunity to spend $3.5 million in local government funds to get an additional $8 million in state funds, which when combined with private investments and contributions will create a $29 million waterfront development. The development will include an aquatic park, other recreational facilities, a lodge and condominiums.

If I was a Storm Lake voter, I would have voted yes, despite both practical and philosophical misgivings. Since the state is willing to gamble $8 million on tourism promotion and private investors are willing to gamble even more, it is reasonable that the citizens of Storm Lake gamble a lesser amount.

And make no mistake, it is a gamble. In order for the investment to pay off, Storm Lake will need to attract tourists from a good distance away and not just on weekends, but throughout the week during the summer.

It could be an uphill battle to make Storm Lake a location people think of when planning their vacations. As lakes go, Storm Lake is, quite frankly, boring. It is not surrounded by natural beauty. The city itself does not exude rustic charm nor include much of historical interest.

I hope my skepticism is misplaced and that the Awaysis becomes a popular tourist destination. Cherokee County would receive a modest economic boost from the spillover of the increased traffic to and from Storm Lake, more than compensating the slight loss from Cherokee County residents spending time in Storm Lake that they might otherwise spend in Cherokee County.

Still, state and local government's growing role in risk-taking ventures is disturbing. Like in the private sector, the only chance for the government to get a substantial return on investment is to take substantial risk. Iowa lawmakers seem willing to do this by investing in tourism and in new technology industries.

I can understand the desperation that leads to this willingness. The state of Iowa continues an economic decline, relative to all the other states in the country, that has continued for over a century. Western Iowa has declined relative to eastern Iowa.

However, a person has to wonder whether these risky investments by the state come at the expense of investments that both have a more predictable benefit and are more in keeping with the traditional role of government.

When the conversion of Highway 20 to four-lane traffic is completed, the state of Iowa will have another major east-west corridor through the state. It will become the most direct route from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest, not only relieving congestion on Highway 80 but also bringing some traffic from Highway 90 in Minnesota down into Iowa.

It would create another transportation corridor to bring industry into Iowa as well as helping with the operation and perhaps expansion plans of northern Iowa businesses. It would even benefit the communities along the portion of Highway 20 already completed, by improving travel to and from the west.

But legislators in Des Moines are reluctant to complete the section between Fort Dodge and Sioux City, arguing, rather short-sightedly, that there aren't enough people using it.

Legislators regard Iowa's high risk investments as more exciting than carrying out the traditional role of meeting infrastructure needs. They boast of having "vision," but this vision apparently doesn't include seeing the most obvious needs.