FORT DODGE - Navigating the growing trail system around Fort Dodge may be made easier in the future by the presence of signs that community leaders hope to buy with the aid of a grant from the Iowa Great Places program.
Those same leaders are now trying to navigate changes within that program that apparently will mean some local projects won't get the all grant money that was anticipated two years ago when Hamilton and Webster counties received the Iowa Great Places designation.
A report to the Fort Dodge City Council signed by City Manager David Fierke and Stephanie Houk Sheetz, the senior city planner, summed up the situation.
''Following our designation and unsuccessful grant requests, we learned the Iowa Great Places program is not interested in funding state parks or community-specific initiatives (when it's a regional designation),'' they wrote. ''That eliminates four of the five projects from our original proposal.''
The Iowa Great Places program was established in 2005 to combine local and state resources to enhance distinctive communities. The program provides competitive grants for those communities. And earning an Iowa Great Places designation gives them increased chances to win state grants from other programs.
Hamilton and Webster counties won the Iowa Great Places label in August 2010 for a proposal stressing outdoor recreation called Where the Rivers Run Wild.
The proposal included these major projects:
A trail along the Des Moines River in Fort Dodge;
An expansion of the Gypsum City Off-Highway Vehicle Park;
A downtown Fort Dodge Plaza;
A 14,400-square-foot outdoor convention center in Briggs Woods Park in Hamilton County;
A 21,456-square-foot environmental education center in Brushy Creek State Recreation Area in Webster County.
Two years later, no Iowa Great Places money has been awarded for any of those projects.
One grant application has been denied, and local officials decided not to file a different one after program managers reported that they do not want to provide money for state parks.
''It's a disappointment,'' said Webster City Mayor Janet Adams. ''Clearly, we have to have resources to do projects like this. We were kind of anticipating some revenue from this program.''
The Gypsum City Off-Highway Vehicle Park at Webster County Road P59 and 219th Street is considered a state park. Its expansion and the projects planned for Briggs Woods and Brushy Creek State Recreation Area have apparently been disqualified from Iowa Great Places funding. The downtown Fort Dodge Plaza has also been disqualified on the grounds that it is for just one community when the Iowa Great Places designation is for a region.
Houk Sheetz said the committee leading the local Great Places effort wasn't going to submit the grant application for the trail signs, but state officials encouraged them to do so.
''They specifically reached out to us,'' she said. ''They knew we were frustrated.''
She added that she's ''cautiously optimistic'' that the application will be successful.
The first grant the local committee sought would have helped to pay for decorative lighting on the Kenyon Road Bridge. The lighting was tied to the riverfront trail project. Houk Sheetz said the lighting would be a ''wow factor'' to enhance the riverfront.
The grant application was rejected on the grounds that it was ''too community specific,'' she said.
Last year, the committee began working on a grant application to help pay for a new sign promoting the off-highway vehicle park. That application was scrapped after state officials informed the local officials that state parks wouldn't be funded.
Cheryl O'Hern, a Fort Dodge woman who led the local Iowa Great Places committee, said the statewide program experienced a ''changing of the guard.''
A lack of money for the program is the root cause of the problem, according to Adams.
Jessica Rundlett, the administrator of the Iowa Great Places program, referred all questions about it to Jeff Morgan, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.
Morgan declined to address the specifics of the plan from Hamilton and Webster counties. He said getting communities to work together is the primary benefit of the program.
''Hamilton and Webster counties are encouraged to put their best foot forward and reflect the big ideas and big visions and the big scope contained in their work plans,'' he said.
State Rep. Helen Miller, D-Fort Dodge, worked for several years to try to get an Iowa Great Places designation for the community. She said she was surprised to hear that the program's managers have apparently disqualified most of the local projects.
''There's no problem with what's happening here,'' she said. ''Apparently, they've changed some things in terms of applying and getting grants to get the work done.''