The land is identified and ready, an excellent master plan is in place and the potential for your new park is endless.
Then the referendum that will fund the major park facilities fails. What do you do next?
The West Des Moines Parks and Recreation Department rolled with the punches, looking for solutions while maintaining a flexible approach to its master plan and funding options.
Mostly, it required a lot of patience, as the city’s latest and greatest park was pieced together to form a cohesive and comprehensive recreational outlet for its citizens.
Piecing the Plan
Raccoon River Park is more than 15 years in the making, overcoming a number of obstacles to get to the point it’s at today.
“The water department of West Des Moines wanted to use the site for shallow water wells, but the water department initially held back because we had the master plan in place. After the referendum failed in 1991 the future of the park was unclear, so they convinced the council that they should be able to put water wells in the park site on one of the two large pieces of land the city had purchased,” explains parks and recreation director Gary Scott.
“From there, it was a matter of how to change the master plan so we could still utilize it for park purposes. By having a well there you’re not allowed to use pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer within 200 feet of the well site, which limits athletic field use, so we flipped the location of the soccer and softball field complexes.”
This was one of many examples of the department’s flexibility that contributed to the continuing viability of the park. Scott says that Sally Ortgies, superintendent of parks, “must have re-drawn the master plan 20 times over the years.”
On the funding end, Iowa allows for annual fund infusion into its park systems for improvements without the need for a public referendum. So, rather than having a lot of the funding it would need right off the bat, the park had to be built in yearly phases.
“It flattened the timeline out significantly, delaying development six years or more, but the revised master plan is better as far as usage and utilizing the area,” explains Scott. “The funding of the referendum was $4 million and was woefully inadequate to do what we eventually did.”
It’s the classic good news/bad news scenario. The bad news being the flattened timeline, while the good news would be a better and more well-rounded park for the community.
The park currently includes soccer and softball fields, a lakeside beach, a nature lodge that doubles as a special event facility, and 3.2 miles of paved and unpaved trails.
Though the major development is complete, more is in the works as the initial goal of the park — to provide a unique destination within the West Des Moines park system — is always in sight.
The softball complex and nature lodge have proven, so far, to be the biggest boons to Raccoon River Park.
Softball is the only sports programming the city runs, and the new park has significantly increased its ability to lure players and tournaments.
“We used to have two to four tournaments, but the new, larger facilities have brought tournaments every weekend from May 1 to October 1,” says Scott.
“The National Senior Softball World Series came here last year and they were so pleased that they want to come back under a multi-year agreement. We finally hit a goal where we’re attracting national tournaments. It raises the public relations level of the facility and brings entertainment into the community.”
The increase in tournaments at the facility brings more than entertainment to the community, it infuses money into the local economy.
“We’re looking at attracting a national youth girls’ tournament. It’s very big in the community, we’re more likely to be able to charge a gate admission, and there’s a lot more in merchandise tie-ins,” says Scott.
In addition, the city runs a variety of commercial and recreational softball leagues. The more competitive commercial leagues get registration, scheduling, umpires and score keepers with their package, while the recreational leagues receive registration, score keepers and scheduling assistance.
Like the softball fields, the nature lodge has an ambitious, multi-purpose goal. First, it provides an interactive nature classroom for school kids that plays off of the natural setting surrounding it, which includes the presence of a variety of birds and mammals.
Second, it doubles as a meeting and special events building that’s rented out for weddings, parties, corporate events and meetings. Scott says that it has become the place in West Des Moines to hold a wedding reception.
Finally, it provides an anchor for park-goers, with indoor restrooms and a staff member on hand to assist them.
“It helps offset the cost of running the nature lodge, and is probably our number-one public relations benefit. People go to the building, fall in love with it, and fall in love with the park by extension,” says Scott.
“We wanted a building the community would love to come to, so the architect put a lot of extra detail in the building. We had a private foundation raise over $100,000 to add some nicer finishing touches to it.”
The soccer fields, which lie on the opposite end of the park from the softball fields, are run by a private organization. The parks and recreation department provides minimum maintenance, like weekly mowing and daily restroom cleaning.
“They do all the field improvements, so if they want to install irrigation, for example, that’s up to them. The youth leagues have built their facilities from the ground up, and run the recreation end of the organization,” says Scott.
“If they want a higher level of maintenance they either contract with us, use a private contractor acceptable to us, or do it themselves.”
On the Horizon
The beachfront at the 250-acre Blue Heron Lake currently includes restrooms, a parking lot and a boat ramp. Long-range plans include a beach house that will host concessions, non-motorized boat rentals,
shower and changing facilities, administration and an adjacent pier.
Next on the agenda for Raccoon River Park is a unique, custom playground. This large playground will continue the concept of Raccoon River as a destination park.
“Most of our other playgrounds are the typical manufactured aluminum pole/plastic component type. This one will have some of that in it, but we’re also constructing a ship structure created according to plans prepared by Brian Clark and Associates, a Des Moines landscape architect firm,” says Ortgies.
“We’re also going to have a fountain area with water jets that come out of the pavement and overhead water spray. It’s an interactive fountain, and we want people, especially children, to come into the fountain.”
The current 3.2-mile trail loop at Raccoon River Park will be expanded to connect into the city’s trail system to help complete the “destination” aspect of the park.
Ortgies says the packed gravel portion of the trail is on the less-developed back side of the park, while the paved portion is on the more-developed front side.
“It keeps the pace slower, and we’ve found people appreciate that, because they can enjoy the natural setting without having people passing by at fast speeds,” says Ortgies.
Special thanks to Edwin R. Slattery, P.E., Stanley Consultants (www.stanleygroup.com) for assistance with this article.