Green Bridge in Des Moines: An Interview with Carl Voss

Side view of the Jackson Street Bridge.
Side view of the Jackson Street Bridge.

The ale is on the house and people are celebrating! But soon, the Green Bridge, spanning the Raccoon River in the south of Des Moines, will be receiving its much-needed makeover. After raising over $2.3 million over the course of two years, people sharing stories and suggestions for the bridge through its facebook platform and other campaigns, rehabilitation will be undertaken beginning next year with the hope to have the bridge reopened to traffic by 2017.  The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles had an opportunity to interview one of the key figures behind the preservation efforts, Carl Voss, to find out how the group Save the Jackson Street (Green) Bridge, supported by the majority of Des Moines’ population of 230,000, plus numerous people with a connection to the bridge’s history, bucked a current trend the city is witnessing with many historic buildings coming down, to save a rare piece of history that clearly belongs to the city. Here is what we found out from him:

  1. How did you guys collect that much money for the project? What events did you have apart from the marathon and the introduction of the brew?

No marathon; not sure where that came from. Oh, I bet that’s a reference to the Mayor’s Annual Ride for Trails, an annual April event sponsored by Des Moines Parks and Recreation to support the city’s trail network. This year, the net ($12,500) went toward the bridge project.

Tapping of the golden keg for Bridge Builder Pale Ale (Oct. 8) was our only other public event. We hoped 100 people would attend; we ended up with nearly 400. A measure of success: attendees drained the ATM machine, which had to be replenished.

Des Moines looks best when public and private groups come together to support a project. And we had it great outpouring of success.

From the public sector—city, county, and state
$750,000 from the City of Des Moines (money they would have spent to tear down the bridge)
$500,000 from State of Iowa Recreational Trails grant
$225,000 from the Polk County Supervisors
$12,500 from the Mayor’s Annual Ride for Trails

The bridge is part of the Meredith Trail; the Meredith Foundation was extremely generous and made an initial in-kind contribution for a $100,000 engineering study of the bridge rehabilitation. The City of Des Moines Engineering Department accepted the study by Genesis Structures of Kansas City and used that study a basis to assemble the bridge package.

The Meredith Foundation donated an additional $200,000 toward the bridge ($300,000 total). Other contributions ranged from $20 to $200,000. Included in this: family foundations, corporations, the Downtown Neighborhood Association, Capital Striders Running Club, The Society of Italian-Americans Auxiliary, and the Knights of Columbus.

We tried to cover all bases! Yes, we were extremely fortunate. Only one downtown business said no. Incredible.

  1. Who all donated for the project as far as businesses were concerned?

Nearly every downtown developer made a significant contribution to this project. Because the funds are held by the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, there are benefits individuals, foundations, and business contribution as either nonprofit contributions or marketing expenses. Through an agreement with the City of Des Moines, we also accepted three-year pledges; nice for foundations.

  1. What difficulties did you have in the efforts?
    My recollection is that once the $500,000 state grant for recreational trails was secured (required a $500,000) match, we felt the task was doable.
  2. With the Younkers, Methodist Hospital and YMCA meeting their untimely end, was there a point where you were afraid that the Green Bridge would also meet its fate?

A little background. After an initial engineering study determined the bridge to be unsafe (April 2013), the Des Moines city manager recommended tearing down the bridge at a cost of $750,000. After members of the Des Moines Park Board resisted tearing down the bridge and embarked on a social-media campaign, the public joined in (Bridgehunter’s Chronicles was part of this). The Des Moines City Council voted 7-0 in December 2013 to hold off tearing down the bridge and see if dollars could be raised to save the structure. (Side note: I served as an interim city council member when the vote was taken.)

The change was instituted from the ground up by a small group.

Personally, I always felt our volunteer committee was up to the task. It was a fabulous volunteer committee with plenty of community connections. We did this on our own without a professional fund-raiser or marketing professional.

We had a tight timeframe: Raise the funds by the end of August so the bid package could be assembled and bids approved in the December 2015 to January 2016 timeframe. We met our goal.

  1. What exactly is next with the bridge project? What is the time frame we’re looking at between now and the time the bridge reopens?

The bridge packet for potential bidders is being assembled now.

Nov. 22: Council to order construction of the bridge (I think in city language: Bids are advertised)

Dec. 8: Bids due (we’ll have a fingers crossed that the bids come in on or under budget)

Dec. 21: approve contract (assuming a qualified bidder comes in under $3.2 million).

Rehabilitation will begin with the spring construction season (March-April), which helps contain costs (completed in one season). One of the necessary expenses is tenting the bridge to remove lead-based paint.

6.What more is needed for the project? What can a person do to help?

We have raised the $2.3 million targeted for the rehabilitation of the bridge.

Donor plazas. We are now seeking additional dollars for donor plazas (one on each river bank). We already have a $50,000 in-kind gift to tell the story of the bridge construction and the south side Des Moines neighborhood that the 1898 bridge connected. The bridge opened up downtown Des Moines jobs and retail to the vibrant south side neighborhoods, known primarily as an Italian immigrant neighborhood. Many of the descendents of those original Italian families have prospered in Des Moines and served as public officials, business leaders, and restaurateurs.

We are accepting $200 donor bricks for the plazas. I suspect some of these donations will come about when people actually see work being done on the bridge. Details at savejacksonbridge.com

LED lights. We are working with a local lighting expert who is really jazzed about adding LED lights to this bridge, which will be opened 24/7 to walkers, runners, and bicyclists. As you might expect, the LED lighting bundle is not part of the basic rehabilitation, so this will be an additional expense.

  1. If a person is interested in the bridge brew, how can it be ordered/bought?

In all, 640 gallons were brewed for this event. Bridge Builder Pale Ale is available at the Confluence Brewery, several local bars and restaurants, and many Hy-Vee grocery stores. Bridge Builder is available in ½ growlers (1 quart) for $10 in the grocery stores.  The brewery created a really nice silk-screen design for the pint glasses and ½ growlers.

  1. Looking at the article released by the Chronicles, there was a nice quote with an analogy to a song by ELO with “Don’t bring me down!” What’s your take on this trend?

I think I can speak for most committee members: We were committed to saving this bridge. Dang, it’s a part of the downtown fabric and was such an important to link the south side to downtown Des Moines. Great stories have arisen from people who remember walking across the bridge to go to a downtown movie. Or terrified teenage boys and girls driving across the rumbling timbers for the first time when it was still opened to auto traffic.

I think we were happily stunned when so many like-minded people stepped up to contribute—local history buffs, bridge fans, walkers, runners, cyclists, downtown developers, and downtown residents.

This project caught the attention of the pubic and the media. We’re so pleased to save this bridge that’s on the National Historic Register of Places.

What’s in a name?

  • We found the original 1896 bridge drawings for the 5th Street Raccoon River Bridge. (Bridge was actually built in 1898.) When the bridge was added to the Historic Register in 1995, it was added as the Southwest Fifth Street Bridge
  • Some people call it the Green Bridge, the current color, even though it’s been dark brown/black, reddish brown, silver or aluminum over the years.
  • Others call it the Jackson Street Bridge, even though there’s no Jackson Street in Des Moines. It’s actually Jackson Avenue, a street name that popped up 10 years after the bridge opened.

If you want to know more about how you can help, please click on the website and there, you can contact the people who can help you. The Chronicles will continue to keep you posted on the latest on the rehabilitation efforts of the bridge, which is about to start.

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