Governor Branstad visits Driftless Area Education and Visitors Center

During a trip to northeast Iowa Thursday, June 16, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad toured the Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center currently being constructed on the Columbus property just south of Lansing. Governor Branstad is pictured in the center in the foreground of the above photo with leaders from various area organizations also in attendance at Thursday's tour event, including, left to right: Main Street Lansing Board of Directors President Bruce Palmborg and Executive Director Craig White, Director of Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation and Development Lora Friest, Allamakee County Conservation Director Jim Janett, Driftless Area Scenic Byway Coordinator Jared Nielsen, and Allamakee County Economic Development Business and Tourism Coordinator Ardie Kuhse and Executive Director Val Reinke. Photo by B.J. Tomlinson.

by B.J. Tomlinson

The roof is on, the windows are in and the excitement continues to grow. And Iowa Governor Terry Branstad said “Wow!” after viewing the picturesque scene from the north window of the Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center being constructed south of Lansing. The Governor was delivered to the Center from the Decorah airport by Iowa State Troopers as part of an overall trip to several northeast Iowa venues Thursday, June 16.

After the smiles, introductions and handshaking, Allamakee County Conservation Board Director Jim Janett reviewed the history of the project and took the Governor on a personal tour of the impressive, three-story building that will house the Center with its many large windows that all offer spectacular views of the surrounding Mississippi River Valley.

Janett said the site itself is a part of the history of the area. “In 1851 the very first district court proceeding was held on this site, so a display related to that proceeding will be included with other exhibits here,” he explained. He went on to outline the  history of the current project.

In 1989, Allamakee County established a County Conservation Board and began several small projects, Janett explained. For many years the Columbus property was occupied by trailer rental units. In the early 1990s, the Allamakee County Board of Supervisors asked the Conservation Board to look at the Columbus property, “think big” and develop the property for public use. After several public meetings  to consider various usage options, the concept of a visitors center was approved by the Supervisors.

In 2007, the management and development of the project was turned over to the Conservation Board. The Board worked with the Allamakee County Community Foundation for initial funding and then won a $1.3 million National Scenic Byways  grant in 2012.

“In between times, we formed a 501(c)3 nonprofit foundation and began doing some initial fundraising, obtaining a CAT (Community Attraction Tourism) grant, saving REAP (Resource and Enhancement and Protection) dollars and receiving a challenge grant from the McElroy Foundation; several local banks in Allamakee County and one from Prairie du Chien accepted the McElroy challenge that added more than half a million dollars in total to the fund.” Janett said. He said that approximately $330,000 in funding is still needed, but that these funds are gradually coming in from private sources. The kick-off for a public fundraising campaign is set to begin this week with a Wednesday, June 22 event held at the Center.

Janett thanked the many individuals who have been promoting the project, including Karen and Gary Galema, Msgr. Ed Lechtenberg, Mayor Mike Brennan, Main Street Lansing, various county agencies, engineers, construction workers and many others.

Lansing Mayor Mike Brennan welcomed Governor Branstad to Lansing and thanked him for being there. He said having the Center was critical to the town and the surrounding area, especially considering the recent closing of the Blumenthal factory, Lansing’s largest employer. “The energy that this project brings to our community is really critical,” Brennan remarked. "I don’t think the timing could be better… This has been twelve years in the making and what a job the Conservation Board has done! It's amazing to see it come to fruition. The County and the community need this shot in the arm right now. It’s a morale booster and shows that we're not lost here. We have a lot of potential and this will help us move forward."

Allamakee County Board of Supervisors Chairman Larry Schellhammer also spoke briefly, sharing, “My hope for this building is that visitors will come in just like Governor Branstad did, walk up to this window here and say ‘Wow!’ Visitors will be  instantly transported from wherever they were into that one moment… This building is going to do a lot for bringing back the past and is a great vision for the future."

Jane Regan of the Mississsippi River Parkway Commission thanked everyone for coming. “It is our responsibility to preserve, protect and promote the economic growth of the Great River Road. This project certainly fits all the criteria for a Center that not only educates visitors, but also an awful lot of residents,” Regan said.

After a tour of the facility, Governor Branstad addressed the group and then responded to several questions. “Thank you for inviting me, I’m really impressed," the Governor said. "Jim, thank you for the thorough information you provided, and thank you to all the other agencies and leaders that have contributed and supported this great project. You’ll remember in the famous movie Field of Dreams they said, ‘If you build it, they will come'. And I’m convinced this will be a destination for a lot of visitors and I think it will be a great way to showcase the natural beauty of the Mississippi River and the Driftless Area of northeast Iowa. When I was first in the Legislature in the ‘70s, I happened to talk to John Mendenhall from New Albin. You all know you don’t get any further north and east in Iowa than New Albin. John used to say, ‘Northeast Iowa is God's country, but you have to go through hell to get there'... I want to congratulate the community and the whole county for working together on this. A project of this magnitude doesn’t just happen. Obviously, this location was really critical and being able to get it together and design a building that fits on this small piece of property but still has the ability to showcase the history and heritage for the visitors that come here is amazing. I’ll be excited to come back when it’s all done and bring my wife and children and grandchildren."