Central City is Iowa's 2013 River Town of the Year

The non-profit organization Iowa Rivers Revival announced yesterday that its 2013 River Town of the Year award goes to Central City, a Linn County town on the Wapsipinicon River. Five Iowa towns have previously won the award: Webster City (Hamilton County), Elkader (Clayton County), Coon Rapids (Carroll County), Cedar Falls (Black Hawk County), and Charles City (Floyd County).

Details on Central City’s award are below. At the end of January, a larger city in Iowa will be named River City of the Year.  

Iowa Rivers Revival explained why this town of just 1,257 people (according to the 2010 census) deserved to be recognized.

“Central City has been a river town since it was founded in 1839, of course, but the last dozen years have seen a remarkable renaissance and focus on the Wapsi,” said Roz Lehman, executive director of Iowa Rivers Revival (IRR).

“Central City has made enormous efforts to foster river-related recreation, tourism, and economic development,” Lehman said.  “It’s a model for what a small town can do to strengthen its quality of life by embracing its river.”

Iowa Rivers Revival is presenting the award at a reception Monday morning at the Falcon Civic Center in Central City.  Mayor Don Gray and other leaders are accepting the award for the community.

The Flood of 1999 was one turning point.  Central City responded by working with FEMA to buy out flood-plain properties along the Wapsi to mitigate future flood damage – and then dedicated the land primarily to be riverfront parks.  The parks have steadily added attractions and drawn more visitors.

In 2000, Central City became a “Main Street Iowa” community, which involved a process of focusing on the town’s existing assets.  “It was obvious to everyone that we were a river town and the river was our biggest asset,” City Administrator LaNeil McFadden recalled recently.

Over the last dozen years, Central City built on the recreational, tourism and civic opportunities provided by the river:  Walking and biking trails were built, and recently were connected to Pinicon Ridge County Park and the new Mary Lundby Trail Bridge.  More people are fishing, canoeing, walking, biking, kayaking, paddle-boating, and beautifying the parks with gardens and plantings.

The Farmer’s market has grown steadily.  “Central City Live” community concerts are held every Friday night in August.  Kids enjoy a July 4 fishing derby each year.  The Mainstreet Design Committee organizes a City-Wide Cleanup each year of the river bank, trail, and downtown areas.  More river-related projects are planned, and the Wapsi is a key part of the community’s vision of the future.

“Central City is proving that rivers are good for tourism, good for business, and good for quality of life,” Lehman said.  Central City estimates it draws 400,000 visitors per year, a huge contribution to the local economy.  And Central City’s population (about 1250) is growing.

“We commend the leaders and citizens, and commend Central City as River Town of the Year,” Lehman said.

“You make Central City a great place to visit, and a great place to live.”

The new trail bridge mentioned above honors the late Mary Lundby, represented this part of Linn County for many years in the Iowa Senate before retiring in 2008. She was a Republican with a strong environmental record, a combination no longer found in the Iowa legislature.

During the last few years, Iowa Rivers Revival has been a leading advocate for state funding to improve recreation on Iowa’s rivers by creating water trails and removing low-head dams. In 2011, Governor Terry Branstad line-item vetoed river restoration funds for fiscal year 2012, but the current budget includes $1 million for river restoration. The governor’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 includes no money for such programs.

According to a 2012 report by Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, recreation on 73 Iowa river segments supported more than 6,350 jobs annually, with $824 million in sales and $130 million of personal income.

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