If you believe the hype, the futures of entire communities hinge on decisions that will be made in the coming months. For the past year, the board of the state's Vision Iowa program has set rules and procedures and reviewed applications for a big pile of state money that was set aside last year for projects to boost tourism and improve quality of life.

Now it could be time to hand some of that money out.

The Vision Iowa board of directors is charged with distributing $180 million in state money to community projects that "expand the recreational, cultural, and educational opportunities in the state," according to the program's mission statement. It's presently considering seven applications, including one from Davenport.

Reviews of the board's work to this point have generally been glowing, with communities citing the board's thoroughness and attentiveness. Board members have clearly read the proposals - which run hundreds and sometimes thousands of pages - and ask hard questions. Many have visited communities to get a better sense of what's being proposed.

"They're being very good stewards of the money," said Council Bluffs Mayor Tom Hanafan, whose community has asked for $36 million in Vision Iowa funds for a $150 million project that includes an arena, hotels, and a water park. "They don't want to make any mistakes."

But now comes the tough part. The Vision Iowa board might be making its first award at its April 11 meeting - most likely to Council Bluffs. Two other communities - Dubuque and Sioux Falls - have begun the funding-negotiation process with the Vision Iowa board to establish funding levels.

Yet the board doesn't know how many or which communities also plan to apply for Vision Iowa funding. May 1 is the deadline to file "an intent to apply" notice with the board, but there's no deadline for the applications themselves. So the board is preparing to make funding decisions even though it doesn't yet know exactly how many communities are applying or what projects they plan to complete, let alone the details of their proposals.

Beyond that, the limited amount of available funds is going to shut a lot of communities out. As of March 2, Vision Iowa staff estimated that it would receive requests totaling nearly $600 million for projects that it did know about - more than three times the available funding. At press time, the board had received 18 notices of intent to file an application for Vision Iowa funds beyond the seven proposals it's already considering.

"I wish I had $300 million, but I don't," said board member Brad Parks, a businessman from Dubuque.

Complicating the situation more is that while some projects have been in development for years, others are brand new. Older projects will have a degree of specificity missing in younger proposals, and that might give them an advantage.

And there are other issues. When it announced an intent to negotiate with Dubuque for its $139 million America's River project, the board set a funding floor of $30 million ($28 million less than the community's request). However, no such minimum funding level was established for the next two projects that entered the negotiation phase.

For all its strengths, the Vision Iowa board appears to be unsteadily feeling its way through the process of distributing its $180 million. Nobody's certain exactly what's going to happen now that the board has reached a critical juncture: what projects to fund, and how much money to give them. In other words, this process has the potential to make a few communities very happy, and a lot of people angry.

Getting Hammered

Legislation creating the Vision Iowa program was signed in May 2000, setting aside 10 percent of the state's Build Iowa fund for 20 years - $15 million a year. (Money for Build Iowa comes from gambling revenues and is unrelated to the current state budget crunch. The remaining 90 percent of Build Iowa funds go to infrastructure projects.) The 10-percent allocation will be used to pay for $180 million in bonds issued to cover Vision Iowa awards.

That $180 million represents all of Vision Iowa's funding. The program will primarily give out grants, but it can also award loans that would be repaid and could then be used for other projects. Barring legislation expanding the program's funding, though, the initiative is pretty much a one-time affair.

The intent of Vision Iowa is strong - trying to lure workers, businesses, and tourists back to the state through innovative capital projects. Yet many people thought it would simply be a program through which to guide money to legislators' pet pork. That's one reason there was a fair amount of lobbying as Governor Tom Vilsack tried to seat a board; communities wanted to make sure that they were represented and got their piece of the tourism-dollar pie.

"A lot of people thought that the money was already earmarked" for specific projects, said Susan Judkins, coordinator of the Vision Iowa program.

But that didn't happen. Vilsack chose a board of strong-minded people who have shown a real willingness to get down and dirty with the applications.

"They are a very hands-on board," Judkins said. "They are spending a lot of time analyzing and evaluating these applications."

"We had one board member come and visit us," said Dan Huber, executive director of DavenportOne, which worked closely with the City of Davenport to develop the $113 million River Renaissance project for a Vision Iowa application requesting $34 million.

Huber has attended Vision Iowa board meetings, and he knows that Davenport's application, which was submitted last month, will get the third degree. Dubuque's project, which has been in development for 10 years and is widely considered one of the better applications being considered for Vision Iowa funding, didn't emerge unscathed: "I don't even think Dubuque came out of there with an easy dialogue," Huber said.

"Every project, even the ones we're funding, has gotten hammered," said Parks. The board thinks that tough questions bring better projects, he added.

The board's questioning usually forces communities to do more work. Polk County submitted an original application of approximately 450 pages, and later submitted an additional 250 pages in response to written questions. "I don't think anybody's going to get an environmentalist award for this process," said Phil Roeder of the Polk County Manager's office. The county is asking for $75 million of it $201 million Iowa Events Center project, which includes a new arena and the renovation of another facility.

Davenport's application has been the largest to date, several thousand pages. That was a function of the timing; the city watched several applications go through the review process while still getting its proposal to the state before any money had been handed out. "There was an opportunity we had to learn ... from the experience other communities had," said Clayton Lloyd, director of community and economic development for the City of Davenport.

The time and energy being devoted to Vision Iowa projects shows that the program has in some ways already been successful, pushing communities to mobilize projects that might have been stalled, forcing leaders to scratch out a vision for their futures.

On the other hand, there seems to be little innovative thinking going on. Vision Iowa was meant to help communities develop "image-altering" proposals that would help give the state a new identity and attract residents and tourists from all over the country. "We were not called together just to give out money," said Vision Iowa Board Chairperson Michael Gartner in July. "Our purpose is to stir creativity."

Yet four of the seven communities being considered for Vision Iowa money are proposing new arenas/conference centers. And while Davenport is asking for money to create an "Ag Tech Venture Capital Center," Waterloo wants funds for an "Agritrade Center" and "Agritech Incubator and Commercialization Center" that not only sound eerily similar but have the same goal of helping young agricultural technology companies develop and thrive. (At least three applications use the "renaissance" label, including Davenport's and Waterloo's.)

And in some cases, projects have been patched together, taking diverse elements and finding a way to package them as one. In Davenport, for instance, the Figge Arts Center, the new Rhythm City riverboat casino, expansion of the Adler Theatre, and two planned parking garages are components of the city's Vision Iowa application, even though the origins of those projects had nothing to do with the state program.

Applications to Vision Iowa first go through a scoring process from staff to ensure the projects meet certain legislative benchmarks. Public bodies - such as school boards, cities, and counties - and not-for-profit groups engaged in community activities or tourism can apply for Vision Iowa funds. Those entities can also apply on behalf of other parties, including for-profit companies. Projects must cost at least $20 million and have at least half of their funding secured from sources other than the Vision Iowa program. Applications are also required to primarily include "vertical infrastructure" - things such as land acquisition, construction, and building renovation rather than routine maintenance or operations costs. Projects can apply for a maximum of $75 million.

But the Vision Iowa board has tightened those requirements. "Applicants should not assume a 50 percent match is adequate," the program's Web site warns.

Following a staff review, applications move to a review committee that includes eight of the board's 13 members. They score applications on a 100-point scale, with three criteria getting 25 points apiece: feasibility, economic impact, and matching funds. The remaining points are awarded based on leveraged activity (10 points), planning principles (10 points), and technology and values (5 points).

Applications that score 65 points or more are recommended to the full Vision Iowa board, which then opens a 10-day public-comment period and asks for a presentation. Program Coordinator Judkins said the review committee so far has wanted to ensure the full board gets an opportunity to look at all applications.

After an application goes to the full Vision Iowa board, the 13 members can vote to enter into negotiations with the community for funding. Once the negotiating process is complete, a vote to approve a contract is all that stands between a project and its Vision Iowa funding.

Of the three communities that have been approved for negotiations, Council Bluffs is the one most likely to get funding first because of its targeted opening date. "We want to be open by October 2002, so we want to get moving," said Mayor Hanafan. The city's hockey team needs a place to play its 2002-3 season.

"There's a sense of urgency," said Mary Ellen Chamberlin, a Vision Iowa board member from the Quad Cities. Other communities, however, haven't presented information that they need Vision Iowa money now.

That gives the board some breathing room, if it wants to take it.

First Come, First Served

It's the job of the Vision Iowa board to weed out mediocre or merely good projects and give money to the very best. Chamberlin isn't sure that's going to happen.

Chamberlin knows about the grant process. In addition to being on the Vision Iowa board of directors, she's president of the Riverboat Development Authority (RDA), which distributes grants from gaming revenues to community projects.

She said she's a bit frustrated by the Vision Iowa process - especially preparing to give out money before it's clear how many applications will be coming in. The board might be considering "excellent" projects, she said, "but they might not be the best. ... We couldn't do RDA grants if we didn't get to look at them all at once."

The idea of cutting off applications has been poorly received on the board, because members don't want communities to rush and turn in incomplete applications. A deadline "was discussed for months," Chamberlin said. "Nobody wants to call it 'first come, first served,' but nobody wants to set a deadline" either.

As a result, the money might run out before all applications are considered. "Does it do me any good to wade through [the] Polk County [application]?" she asked.

Another challenge is comparing projects that might have little in common; are in different stages of development; and are presented differently by communities.

"It's hard to judge one against the other," Parks said.

Even though each project is scored on the same criteria, each application is different - not only including different elements but also taking different approaches to Vision Iowa goals. "They're all following the rules, but they come with something different," Chamberlin said.

She added that the Vision Iowa board has not been able to reconcile how to compare and treat projects that are substantially different - apples and oranges. "It takes a while for people to move as a unit," Chamberlin said of the board, which has only been together for six months. "I would never attempt to second-guess that group."

All three communities that have been officially passed on to the negotiation phase - Dubuque, Council Bluffs, and Sioux City - have been working on their projects for a long time, and that might have worked to their advantage. Those were "the first ... that were presented but they were also done" in terms of planning and the fleshing out of concepts and details, Parks said.

And it often just takes time and work for good ideas to become viable plans. "Some of the best projects come from the end of the process," Parks said.

Dubuque's America's River concept, which has requested $58 million of its $188 million project cost from Vision Iowa, has been around for a decade. It would include a motel and indoor water park, a Mississippi River Discovery Center and Aquarium, a river walk, and conference center.

On the other side, some concepts are brand new. Davenport's application includes the Ag Tech Venture Capital Center and a River Music History Center, for example, and both ideas are in their infancy.

Lloyd said the youth of the ideas might work against some communities who've applied for Vision Iowa money. "That may be a critical point," he said. Without specifics, the Vision Iowa board will need "confidence in the germ of an idea."

And several components of Davenport's plan are clearly still in the early stages of development. "If this is a 10-step process, we're at step two or three," said DavenportOne's Huber.

Another complicating factor is the issue of how much. The Vision Iowa board could choose to fund a few projects fully or a larger number partially, but either creates quandaries.

Fully funding three or four projects would mean a few communities got the entire windfall.

Yet giving more communities less than they asked for is also a difficult call.

Vision Iowa money is meant to be awarded only when all other funding sources have been exhausted - "ours being the last dollars in the project," said Judkins. "We have a pretty good idea what should have been sought." The board "is pretty tough on making sure the cities have a significant investment," she added.

So if a community has truly exhausted all resources and gets less than it requests, it will have to scale back or alter its project, probably significantly. And that might make the projects less viable in the long run.

"I think it might actually make the projects better," Parks countered. He said that the process of refining concepts and plans might result in smaller but stronger ideas.

Some communities claim that won't work. "Our request and our need is $75 million," said Polk County's Roeder. Would less money imperil the Iowa Events Center project? "It depends how much less is less," he said.

More Money?

At some point, legislators were considering increasing the amount of Build Iowa funds available to the Vision Iowa board. But politics has squashed that talk. With budget and staff cuts looming because of the economic slowdown, lawmakers are hesitant to increase a program's funding, even though such a move would have no impact on the state's general fund because Vision Iowa money is drawn from another source.

If Vision Iowa succeeds, however, it could bring a great return on the state's investment. With a larger tax base, more workers, more businesses, and more tourists, the state might find itself awash in tax revenues. "Vision Iowa may correct the other problem" - the state's current financial shortfall, Chamberlin said.

But that will require the Vision Iowa board to do its job well under very difficult circumstances.

Next week: A close look at Davenport's River Renaissance application to the Vision Iowa Board.

For more information on the Vision Iowa program, including answers to frequently asked questions, visit (http://www.visioniowa.org).

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