Small start, big ideas

Published 10:00 am Monday, May 7, 2012

Of the 10 final choices for Vision 2020, one of the most visible would be an overpass between Fourth and 14th Street SW that could feature businesses and places to eat. - Illustration by Eric Johnson

First committee meetings just the beginning of Vision 2020

The top 10 Vision 2020 ideas have Austin residents buzzing, and for good reason. The 10 projects stemming from the community-wide initiative aim to massively change Austin’s landscape in eight years or less. Though each project is in its infancy — project committees met for the first time Thursday and will need time to hammer out detailed plans — there’s plenty of potential for a positive impact in Austin. The Daily Herald takes a look at three more plans in a periodic series highlighting each Vision 2020 project. Look for in-depth coverage of other ideas in the coming weeks, months and years.

Gateway to success

The Gateway to Austin is more than a welcome sign for Interstate 90 travelers crossing through Austin.

“It needs to have some wow factor to it to really pique people’s curiosity and get them to stop,” said Laura Helle, executive director of the Hormel Historic Home and Vision 2020 steering committee member.

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While part of the goal is an effective sign announcing the city, the Vision project aims at developing an iconic I-90 overpass somewhere between Fourth Street NW and 14th Street NW that can simultaneously draw people to the area and provide a convenience for Austin residents.

“Part of the functionality is it’s going to need to bridge the interstate,” Helle said.

And not just for cars. Many ideas submitted for Vision 2020 asked for a walking or bike trail so people could make it to Target or the mall without driving, she said. This project would try to add a means of passage for those people.

For motorists driving through Austin, the gateway itself could be more than just an advertisement for the city.

“It may be a situation where vehicle traffic can get off the interstate, park and go inside,” Helle said. She cited the travel oasis near Chicago as an example, which contain a number of small retail outlets, including food shops and souvenirs.

Cheryl Corey, executive director of the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the proposed overpass aligns well with the CVB’s goal of enhancing the local economy by bringing in visitors. Corey joined the Gateway to Austin committee to support the project and extend Austin’s reach.

“That’s exactly what we need to work toward,” Corey said. “We’ve chosen to focus our energy on that one.” It’s difficult to put hard numbers to the money the project could bring in at this point, she added.

“It’s going to require a lot of different entities,” Helle said, adding she thinks the biggest challenge in the project will be getting all the players moving in the right direction. Beyond the efforts of visionaries, developing the area along the interstate requires the cooperation of a number of authorities.

“I think if we could pull it off, it would be well worth it,” she said.

 Recreation for all

One of the more popular ideas is a prospective community recreation center, which is the culmination of a variety of ideas. A place for youth and teens to turn to, a new place for adults to exercise, a place where families can spend time together, and more ideas came together in what could be a high-profile Austin attraction.

“We really want a first-rate facility,” said Roger Boughton, community recreation center committee member.

There’s plenty of ideas and projects for committee members to piggyback on. In recent years, the YMCA of Austin has gone through strategic planning which could lead to a potential remodel, addition or new facility, according to YMCA board members.

“There’s a lot of planning that goes into a place prior to developing a new recreation center,” said Craig Hoium, committee member and YMCA board vice president. “The Y has already done quite a bit of that groundwork.”

Committee members are already talking about what the center will hold, which could include meeting rooms for corporate events, exercise areas for fitness buffs, play areas for families and even a few health initiatives.

Many committee members are looking to partner with the YMCA and other organizations, including Riverland Community College. City of Austin staff have for years discussed a potential replacement for its youth activity center by partnering with Riverland. City officials have previously spoken with Riverland officials about creating a shared recreation center with expanded athletic courts. Officials even toured the recreation center in Osage, Iowa, last year, though that center faced funding issues halfway through construction. That’s why committee members are emphasizing bringing in several partners to plan a facility the whole community can use.

“I see it as an opportunity to collaborate,” said Jim Splinter, community recreation center committee member.

Riverland officials are excited to collaborate as well. Riverland already partners with the city and Austin Public Schools in running Dick Seltz Field, the relatively new baseball complex.

“We’ve talked about the possibility of youth centers, recreational centers … we’ve broached the subject of a sports complex, and that’s why we’re really excited to be at the table with Vision 2020,” said Riverland President Terry Leas, who is also a community recreation center committee member. “We think there’s some really exciting possibilities.”

Mark Owens, center right, leads a small-group discussion during a committee meeting for Embrace and Maintain Waterways Thursday evening at Riverland Community College. - Eric Johnson/

Embracing and maintaining waterways

Cleaning area rivers and lakes has been far from an easy task, but Vision 2020’s ability to shed new light on the problems could significantly reduce the burden. And local officials charged with the “health” of the area’s watershed realized that as soon as they saw the idea nestled within the menagerie of Vision 2020’s goals.

“I think this just goes hand-in-hand with what the Cedar River Watershed District is working on,” said Bev Nordby, CRWD administrator.

From the beginning of Vision 2020, Helle noticed that cleaning waterways has been a popular facet.

“I do know that was one of the popular ones,” Helle said, and mentioned a lot of comment cards and online responses displayed enthusiasm in that area.

Recent initiatives, such as wetland restoration, a locally employed adopt-a-river program and a DNR-designated state water trail may have caused a snowball effect in the community.

“You know, I think there is becoming an awareness of the resource that we have in the river system,” Nordby said.

Furthermore, Helle said as the waterways and lakes improve and receive positive support, that creates a symbiotic relationship with the other Vision 2020 ideas. She said if people see the river as a resource, ideas like the gateway to Austin and others only become stronger. Helle said some people even dream about a community beach, and the absence of that resource surprises some, such as newcomers.

“I was pretty disappointed when I came here, and I learned you couldn’t swim (in natural waterways), said Claire Olson, 17, who recently moved to Austin and attended Thursday’s Vision 2020 meeting. “So it’d be pretty cool if you could just go swimming.”

To start, however, brainstormers at Thursday’s Vision 2020 meeting focused on small-scale projects that can draw in large numbers of volunteers. Then bigger visions can begin to form.

Afterall, there are seven and a half years to go.