• Tue December 09 2008
  • Posted Dec 9, 2008
By JENNIFER JACOBS The future is uncertain for Vision Iowa, a popular state grant program that has paid for both mammoth and mini tourism projects over the past eight years. Gov. Chet Culver diverted nearly $14 million from the grant program to pay for disaster recovery in September. He is not yet saying whether he is interested in pumping money back into Vision Iowa, which helped pay for such projects as new museums, resorts and an events center. Asked if Culver will urge the Iowa Legislature in January to again commit money, spokesman Troy Price answered: "At this time, the governor and lieutenant governor are reviewing all options for the coming legislative session and the budget and will roll out their complete legislative agenda early next year." Dozens of projects lined up for grant money are now in limbo. Organizers said they do not begrudge flood victims a dime of their state assistance. But they realize lawmakers facing painful spending cuts may find it easier to shut off money to a program that has already been suspended. After all, the program was born during a previous administration with a different set of legislative leaders. "I wonder if it'll make a comeback at all," said Chuck Offenburger, a community activist in Greene County. The county was on the verge of getting two grants, but it remains one of only seven counties never to get Vision Iowa money. "It's probably been the best state government program of my life," Offenburger said. To date, Vision Iowa has contributed $335 million to 320 projects that are worth $1.8 billion. About $229 million went to 14 major projects, and $106 million went to 306 smaller projects. The fund provided $9 million toward a $39 million indoor-outdoor waterpark resort that is now open in Storm Lake. In Des Moines, the Iowa Events Center was given $50 million, a new Science Center of Iowa received $15 million, and the Iowa Hall of Pride received $5 million. All the money for major projects is gone. No new money for big projects is on the horizon. For smaller projects, lawmakers last session approved spending $12 million each year until June 2013 for Community Attraction and Tourism grants. But that money is not locked in. For projects on lakes and rivers, lawmakers agreed to $12 million for this budget year. All that money, plus $1.9 million remaining for the smaller projects, was diverted to disaster recovery. Mike Tramontina, state economic development director, said Vision Iowa has done outstanding things. "Is it a good program? You have to ask, 'Compared to what?' Compared to the number of teachers you'd have to lay off? Compared to safety on the highways? Compared to doing flood mapping?" he said. Those are difficult choices for Culver and Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, he said. "Something like this can be not funded for a year or two without doing any direct harm to anyone except dashing some hopes, delaying somebody's hopes," Tramontina said. State Rep. Kraig Paulsen, the Republican leader in the Iowa House, said he would like to see at least the grants for smaller projects resume this spring. But if that does not happen because of budget constraints, he would like to see money in the future for big, small and waterfront projects, he said. Vision Iowa cuts down on pork-barrel spending, said Sen. Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo. Because the division of money rests with a politically balanced board, "you don't have lawmakers fighting for pet projects ... with those with the most influence end up getting the grease," he said. Dotzler said he intends to argue that it is worth dipping into the state's rainy-day fund to pay for recreation projects in flood-prone areas, such as a bike trail on top of a new dike. "The best economic development is really to create an environment in which people really enjoy living, working and raising their families," he said.

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