Absentee votes pour in, city officials confident in bond issue
As the fate of Storm Lake's Project Awaysis is to be put to the test on Tuesday, the absentee ballots are flowing in at a record pace. Storm Lake Mayor Jon Kruse is both pleased with the attitudes he is hearing from the community and confident in the outcome of the vote.
"I think everything is going very well leading up to the vote on Tuesday," he told he Pilot-Tribune. "I think a majority of the people are excited about Project Awaysis and supportive of it."
It will take a majority and then some. A bond issue such as the one Storm Lake will determine requires a 60 percent "supermajority" approval from voters. Polls will be open on Tuesday in Storm Lake from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
"Awaysis represents an opportunity that we have never had before, and we may never see anything like it again," Kruse said. "It is the opportunity for this community to set its own direction, its own quality of life for the future, its own possibilities for prosperity.
"It's an opportunity that we simply can't pass up, in my mind," Kruse said.
The key to the election may be the fact that the community is well aware that the Awaysis plan is an all-or-nothing proposition, the mayor feels. "We don't have the option to scale back, or to cut some things out. In order to receive the $8 million in funding that Vision Iowa has approved for Storm Lake, we need to in return create the project that we told them we would create."
That makes Tuesday's vote critical. The $3.5 million in bonding that voters are asked to approve goes toward the outdoor pool portion of the Awaysis water park, but is one critical component of the funding package as accepted by Vision Iowa in making its reward. If the city were unable to deliver, local leaders feel that the $8 million Vision Iowa grant could be withdrawn.
Kruse feels that the bond issue vote is a bargain for the community.
"When you really look at Awaysis, we are being asked for $3.5 million in the bond vote, and for that, we are getting a $4.5 million outdoor water park as well as all the other elements of the overall project," he said.
"If this vote were to fail, and Project Awaysis were to go away, we would still be coming to voters with a need to replace the aging pool with a modern aquatic center, and I believe that would cost us that $4.5 million or thereabouts for just that outdoor aquatic center."
From early discussions on creating some kind of state park to better position Storm Lake for tourism, Project Awaysis has evolved rapidly in well under two years.
"It has come about quickly, but at the same time there was no sacrifice of quality. All pieces and components have been thoroughly considered to form an overall vision," Kruse said. "One of the reasons that it was possible is all of the volunteers who have worked so hard. The number is approaching a couple of hundred people that have had direct involvement with Awaysis as volunteers, and the list is still growing. If not for all of those folks, we would not have been able to get the Vision Iowa grant application submitted in a timely manner, and we never could have gotten to where we are today," Kruse said.
VIEW FROM THE STATE - Vision Iowa officials agreed. In granting Storm Lake the largest percentage of asking amount out of all the projects funded in the program, and pledging the community its entire remaining treasury, Vision Iowa board members remarked that Storm Lake was exceptional in the level of community involvement and volunteerism going into Project Awaysis, as opposed to other projects the group has seen that were forwarded largely by one lead individual or a small group of movers and shakers.
"That impressed them in Des Moines," Kruse said.
From the statehouse to the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Economic Development, the project sees encouragement.
"It is everything that is good and right about this state. This is sending a very powerful message that opportunity is alive and well in this state," Governor Tom Vilsack has said.
Vision Iowa board member Gregg Connell is equally complimentary. "This is evidence that small communities can think big. Storm Lake has really gone to the wall for this," he said.
Mayor Kruse wants to capitalize on that momentum. "We have people at the federal level believing in Storm Lake, and people at the state level believing in Storm Lake. Now we just need to believe in ourselves," Kruse said. "It's time to get out and vote."
OPPOSITION - The issue has not gone without opposition as well. "We have had people come to our various meetings with questions - and some very good questions. There have been some misconceptions, and we've tried to address them as they come up. In some cases, we have had people come in to a meeting opposed to the project, and as they learn more of the facts, they leave saying, 'We need to do this,'" Kruse said.
There has been no organized opposition campaign, with dissenting opinions coming in the form of a handful of letters to the editor.
"The community didn't have a lot of input before they went to Vision Iowa," said Marilyn Fields, a long-time Storm Lake resident who was one of the first to express an opinion against Awaysis. "There are some things we really like about it then again there are some things we really don't."
While complementing Awaysis Project Manager Mike Wilson for the quality of his presentation that she saw, Fields has a problem with the scope of the project.
"It needs to be cut back," Fields said.
She also disagrees with the satellite voting station set up at Buena Vista University this week, which she feels is potentially swaying the vote.
Fields was most opposed to the fountain, lighthouse, lodge, and condos of Project Awaysis. Rather, she would prefer to see more features that are available to moderate income people.
"The lodge is obviously for people coming in from out of town. That's not for the average Joe," Fields said. "We need more of the lower-income housing rather than the higher."
Even Fields feels that there is a lot of good in the Awaysis plan - the city needs the pool, she said, and she favors the playground, feels the skate park is acceptable, and wishes the nature interpretive center were an even more immediate part of the project.
HIGH TURNOUT EXPECTED - Elections Commissioner Karen Strawn expects a spirited turnout, and encourages voters to get to the polls early in the day in order to avoid lines, although with a one-question ballot, waiting times should not be long.
Polling hours are 7 a.m. - 8 p.m. at the four normal Storm Lake voting precincts - Precinct 1 at the fire station, Precinct 2 at City Hall, Precinct 3 at the Methodist Manor commons, and Precinct 4 at Chautauqua Park shelterhouse.
While Strawn notes that the special election probably won't match the turnout in Iraq - which has been reported at 93 percent in some areas this week, she said - it would be surprising if any less than 1,200 to 1,500 voters go to the polls in Storm Lake. "I would like to think that it will be much greater. I would be thrilled to death with a big turnout," Strawn said.
A total of 5,477 voters are eligible to participate.
The absentee balloting has already set a record for special elections, which often see no absentee ballots at all. By Thursday, 232 votes had been cast in advance, including 53 ballots at the somewhat controversial new absentee voting station Strawn set up at Buena Vista University last Tuesday.
Strawn notes that the BVU votes will be included with the rest of the absentees in the tally following the election, so the outcome of the college voting will not be known separately.
There is little that Project Awaysis can be compared to in order to predict a turnout, Strawn notes. A city telecommunication issue in 1998 drew 1,190 voters, but as a winter vote, Awaysis faces more "snowbirds" relocated to the south. The middle-school bond issue in 1994 saw 1,203 voters, but school issues tend to have a different voter appeal than municipal issues, Strawn said.
Historically, it is a hurdle for bond issues to attain the 60 percent supermajority approval needed. "The Sioux Central school issue is the first one I had ever seen that passed on its first time before voters," Strawn said.
The wording of the ballot will call for $3.5 million in general obligation bonds "for the purpose of acquisition, construction, reconstruction, enlargement, improvement and equipping of a city swimming pool."
City officials intend to use the funds only for the outdoor pool portion of the indoor/outdoor water park that is a part of the Awaysis plan. That development would replace an aging municipal swimming pool.
ON THE STREET - Bright yellow signs proclaiming "Vote Yes" line many streets throughout town. A seeming majority of downtown Lake Avenue businesses have posters in their windows. A large lighted sign outside of Grand Central Coffee Station advertising for cookies and hot chocolate also includes a message encouraging community members to "Vote Yes."
Originally from the Okoboji area, Grand Central employee Cassie Jensen is in favor of making Awaysis a reality, and says most patrons seem to agree. "It's a great opportunity to bring people to town, and it will be great for the businesses. It definitely keeps me interested in staying in town."
At Abner Bells, customer Jeanne Tinsley said she feels that Awaysis would be a welcome addition. "It's a tremendous asset to the community."
Ken Schweller agreed. "It would be an excellent place for family reunions and vacations."
Larry Schultz of Storm Lake Honda approves. "I am in favor of anything new coming to town, and Awaysis gives people another reason to come to Storm Lake," Schultz commented.
At HyVee, floral employee Rosemary Blum, who resides in Schaller, believes that Awaysis will bring people to Storm Lake who would usually go to Okoboji. "A lot of people who live west of here pass through on their way to the Lakes, and a place like Awaysis will hopefully make them want to spend their weekends in Storm Lake."
As the vote nears, project supporters plan to make some phone calls urging people to get to the polls, and transportation is being offered for those who may need help getting to the polls.