City ranks 2009 priority projects

Published 10:19 am Thursday, August 7, 2008

Downtown revitalization, fire alarms and a pedestrian bridge are the Austin City Council’s top priorities among its 2009 funding requests from the Hormel Foundation.

Members ranked about $600,000 in local projects, which also included major additions to the Austin Municipal Pool and a three-year, $75,000-a-year improvement plan for the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center.

“Last year, we allocated about $3.4 million to various agencies around the community,” former mayor and Hormel Foundation board member John O’Rourke said, adding that the city of Austin received $231,000 of its $495,000 request that year.

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“Generally, we (the city) don’t get all of it, but we’ll get a little more than we got last year,” he said, referring to the council’s grant requests.

First on the list was the Main Street Project, a downtown revitalization effort that had offered forgivable loans and other financial support to more than a half-dozen downtown businesses.

“It’s been really what’s put things over in terms of making sure the projects happen,” Hurm said in reference to foundation grants.

The council requested $105,000.

Austin Fire Department smoke alarms came second; the city will likely request $5,000 from the foundation, a $2,000 jump from last year.

The fire department recently received a $3,000 Wal-Mart grant for the program, which provides free fire alarms to community members. The intent is to reduce fire injuries though early fire detection.

A pedestrian bridge crossing Cedar River ranked third in priorities. According to city engineer Jon Erichson, the city has already acquired a federal grant totaling $255,000 for the project, which will connect the Cedar River Pedestrian Trail through Central Park and park trails on the river’s south side.

Its total length will be 0.3 miles, and will link two trail ends to create a looped system.

“This project relates to the trail plan,” according to a memorandum distributed to the council. If granted, the foundation, it said, would pick up 50 percent of the local share, bringing the project within the budget set in the city’s capital improvement plan.

Pool amenities were among the lowest priorities, interrupted only by $225,000 in Hormel Nature Center improvements.

The Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department is seeking $50,000 for a drop slide, $25,000 for a climbing wall and $150,000 for a splash park.

“We’re now just looking at new things to put into the pool to generate interest to come to the pool,” said Park and Rec interim director Kim Underwood, adding that she’s heard from community members they prefer to go elsewhere to swim because nearby city pools have more amenities.

All three projects are listed in the capital improvement plan; the city has already scheduled $40,000 in upgrades for 2009.

Ranking fifth in the list of seven, the nature center is hoping for help on a major three-year $425,000 improvement plan that will includes new signs, exhibits and landscaping.

Park and Rec requested about half the cost — $225,000 — from the foundation spread evenly over a three-year period.

According to the project description, the effort will take place over three phases, beginning in 2009.

The first phase will include signage upgrades, including interpretative signs honoring its namesake, Jay Hormel, the oak savanna landscape and a map of trails.

The second phase involves a conceptual plan for interpreting the natural history of the region through exhibits and displays in the center, with the goal of helping “our natural world come alive to visitors through visual and interactive state of the art exhibits.”

During the third and final year, 2011, the center hopes to realize the conceptual plan, which will include construction of new exhibits and associated remodeling.

“There are a lot of people out there who really enjoy this kind of thing,” Underwood said.

The remaining cost is projected to come from the Friends of the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center and the city of Austin.

The foundation has already committed to funding a five-year expansion of the Todd Park soccer fields. It will provide $50,000 in funding each year, with 2009 providing the second installment.

The Austin Mower County Area Transit Board is also seeking $66,200 for its work and dialysis routes, as well as a partial payment for a new bus, in 2009.