WATERLOO, Iowa --- Engineers inflated a downtown Cedar River bladder dam last week.
The successful test --- coinciding with visible progress on a riverside amphitheater, plaza and trails --- also is pumping up the spirits of organizers who have been working to transform the downtown riverfront for more than a decade.
"It's incredible and the buzz around town is very positive," said Mayor Buck Clark. "We are already starting to get people inquiring about the amphitheater. Can I have my reception there, my wedding there?
"This is, I believe, a defining catalytic moment for the city of Waterloo," he added, "not just for downtown but for the entire city."
Dan Watters is a member of the nonprofit Waterloo Development Corp. formed in 2000 to help design, coordinate and implement a downtown redevelopment plan which received $7.3 million Vision Iowa grant in 2003 to help pay for a $20 million Riverfront Renaissance plan.
From his office window, Watters can see the progress on the rubber bladder on the dam between Park Avenue and Fourth Street; a trail loop along both sides of the downtown riverside; and a riverfront plaza and amphitheater near the Center for the Arts.
A large, steel performance structure and a long staircase leading to a raised plaza has dramatically changed the riverfront skyline.
"You can just see it coming together and it's going to be pretty sweet," Watters said. "I think when you finally get all the concrete work done and several thousand people are out watching an outdoor concert there, it's going to be impressive."
Associate City Engineer Jamie Knutson said contractors on the project are racing against a Dec. 31 deadline imposed by the Vision Iowa grant, but are on target to be substantially complete.
The $6 million bladder dam, which included riverwall improvements, is done and has been tested. The dam is designed to raise the river level upstream about four feet and improve boating opportunities.
"We only inflated it about a foot just to make sure everything was still functioning as it's supposed to," said Knutson, noting work upstream needs to be finished before it is inflated completely.
The city is applying for a federal water trails grant next week, which would allow for a water connection between the Cedar River and Brinker Lake, at George Wyth State Park. Approval would allow boaters to dock at the lake but still enjoy the downtown water recreation.
Doug Schindel, an engineer AECOM who is the project manager on Riverfront Renaissance efforts, said four Vision Iowa construction projects remain to be finished, including a trail being built along the east banks of the river from Mullan Avenue to Park Avenue.
"That essentially will be finishing up the entire east-side trail," Schindel said.
The other three contracts involve the plaza and amphitheater area near the Waterloo Center for the Arts.
Peterson Contractors Inc., of Reinbeck, is handling a $3.5 million lower plaza and amphitheater; Peters Construction Corp., of Waterloo, is building a $1.5 million elevated pedestrian plaza above the amphitheater; and Prairie Construction, of Waterloo, is building an $800,000 children's playground and a steel-and-fabric performance structure to be installed at the riverfront plaza.
The playground, Mark's Park, is named after Mark Young, the son of Rick and Cathy Young who died in a March 2003 motorcycle accident. The park will include play equipment and water features, or "sprayground," and is being constructed in memory of Mark and other children who died too soon.
"I just can't wait until next summer when we have all sorts of happy children in swimsuits shrieking as the water comes out," Cathy Young said. "Mark's family is absolutely thrilled" with the progress so far.
Watters said the downtown is seeing a revival as residents and investors realize the long-discussed projects are really happening.
"They wanted to make sure the city is really committed to it," Watters said. "The east side (of downtown) was renovated in part because of what we're doing on the west side.
"There's a lot of people who have moved into the east-side housing and condos, professors from (the University of Northern Iowa) moving downtown. The idea that it's not safe downtown has gone away.
"There's so many things going on at the same time," he added. "When they are all complete, almost at the same time, people will say they didn't know all of it was going on."