An effort to increase economic development and community building at natural areas in Pottawattamie, Mills and Harrison Counties is underway.

The Loess Hills Missouri River Region is an effort to promote and improve the area’s parks, trails and cultural assets to enhance overall economic and community vitality, according to Michelle Wodtke Franks, executive director of Golden Hills Resource Conservation and Development.

The project is part of the statewide Parks to People effort organized by the Iowa Parks Foundation, which recently announced the Loess Hills Missouri River Region will be the second Parks to People region in the project, following the pilot area now known as the Grant Wood Loop along the Mississippi River in eastern Iowa.

“If implemented correctly, it’ll benefit the region at large,” Wodtke Franks said during a discussion with the Pottawattamie County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

The effort will include projects to enhance economic development and tourism, public health and social vitality, natural resources and overall regional vibrancy, according to Golden Hills.

Wodtke Franks said the project got a jump start thanks to a $500,000 matching grant from Mid-American Energy.

“It gets the ball rolling; we can start leveraging those funds,” Wodtke Franks said.

The Mid-American commitment is a 5-to-1 matching grant — meaning the project must raise another $2.5 million. The project has until the end of 2019 to raise the matching funds. Wodtke Franks said region leaders will seek out federal and state grants along with a variety of private grants and donations.

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“It sounds daunting. But the idea behind it is it’s trying to build sustainable support for our parks systems,” she said. “The plan has millions of dollars in potential projects.”

The effort will focus predominantly on improvements and expansions at parks, recreation areas and trails in the three counties, with an emphasis on infrastructure. Land acquisition will also be a component.

“Our goal is to support projects that’ll have a regional impact,” Wodtke Franks said. “We want to break counties out of their silos and work together.”

Golden Hills will serve as the nonprofit overseeing the project, with a region board of directors to be determined at a later date.

On Tuesday, the Supervisors agreed to contribute $12,000 annually over the next three years using money from the gaming fund. Wodtke Franks said the regional effort hopes to discuss the project with the Iowa West Foundation board in March.

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