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Inside the city's billion-dollar plans for developing Lake Springfield

One idea in the newly unveiled Lake Springfield Plan is to create a series of "wetland eco-islands" created by dredging silt currently built up in Lake Springfield. On Oct. 11, 2023 a consultant said Lake Springfield's shallow waters could become wetlands in 20 to 50 years without intervention.
Courtesy City of Springfield
One idea in the newly unveiled Lake Springfield Plan is to create a series of "wetland eco-islands" created by dredging silt currently built up in Lake Springfield. On Oct. 11, 2023 a consultant said Lake Springfield's shallow waters could become wetlands in 20 to 50 years without intervention.

By the end of this year or early in 2024, City Utilities and Springfield City Council could sign off on extensive development plans for Lake Springfield.

At a media briefing Wednesday afternoon followed by a public open house at Springfield Art Museum on Thursday night, city officials unveiled a bold proposal offering two options for a 1,000-acre swath of land surrounding Lake Springfield. Located near the intersection of U.S. Highway 65 and James River Freeway, the land is currently owned by the local taxpayer through Springfield City Utilities.

Consultants estimate that after 10 years, a highly developed Lake Springfield area could create roughly 1,000 jobs and bring in some 800,000 visitors per year. Those visitors could spend at least $171 million per year, generating at least $8 million in new tax revenues.

Each of the two overall options comes with organizing themes: An “Entertainment District” with an “Eco Retreat” is option 1, with option 2 including an “Adventure Hub” and “Destination Adventure Park.” The themes are linked to different conceptions of how to adapt and reuse the James River Power Station.

That’s a former coal and natural gas plant at the southwest end of Lake Springfield. It was operated by City Utilities from the 1950s — when Lake Springfield was created after the James River was dammed up — until the plant was decommissioned in 2021. A substation remains on site as part of the Springfield-area electric grid.

Consultants rated Option 1’s economic development costs, largely to be shouldered by developers, at more than $1.2 billion. Option 2, the Adventure Hub, would cost just over $1 billion. Either concept would use between 500 and 600 acres of the Lake Springfield area.

When a reporter on Wednesday asked which of the two options would go forward, Steve Prange —an engineer with CMT consultants hired by the city — emphasized that the planning effort is intended to attract private developers to the project.

He said, “Honestly, development will tell us what the right answer is there, what we're doing in this planning effort, okay, right now, it's just kind of whetting the appetite of the development community out there. And say, hey, this is what our community is lacking, and would be a good fit here, so you tell us.”

The Lake Springfield Plan does not have funding attached to it yet, city officials say, but its goals are ambitious:

1. “Innovative Economic Development & Resilient Job Creation” in the 1,000-acre Lake Springfield area, to complement economic development across southwest Missouri.

2. “Sustainable Water Quality & Green Infrastructure Improvements.” Ozarks Public Radio asked if the Lake Springfield area is currently a healthy ecosystem.

Prange answered, “Yes. Yes, it has a thriving ecosystem. It has a lot of population of different species of fish and aquatic life, that has a thriving plant and wildlife population that surrounds its banks. So I mean, absolutely. From an environmental conservation perspective, it's and it's in a really healthy shape. I think what we're doing here is, how long will that last? You know, if we just do nothing? If we do nothing? If we do nothing, right? It'll turn into more of a wetland, right? I mean, it'll turn into really, you know, a wetland ecosystem, instead of a lake with a, defined water elevation.”

But in 20 to 50 years, it could become a wetland due to silt buildup on the lake bed. Part of either option for the redevelopment plan would involve dredging the silt and creating a series of “eco-islands” with a pedestrian boardwalk.

3. “Adaptive Reuse Strategy” for the James River Power Station. For example, in the “Entertainment District” version of the Lake Springfield Plan, the power station area could become a “multi-use event venue, retail, residential and office” area, with a “restaurant overlook” and “riverfront recreation” amenities like a lawn and pavilion.

4. “Transportation enhancements” that are “accessible” and “equitable” linking Lake Springfield to surrounding communities. The Chadwick Flyer Ozark Greenways trail would allow people to get to the renewed Lake Springfield area without using a car. There are also several conceptions of how to build new automobile roads to the Lake Springfield area, some including the long-planned East-West Arterial through southern Greene County.

5. “Active and Passive Recreational Opportunities as a Regional Economic Development Catalyst” — One aspect of this goal Prange highlighted is the idea of creating a “bypass channel” around the Lake Springfield Dam to allow for sports like kayaking. It would cost $5 million to $11 million.

“We do have a unique opportunity with the James to create one of the world's largest water trails,” Prange said. So if you think about how the James River connects, it could potentially connect Lake Springfield down to Lake Taneycomo via a water trail, if we could get that to happen.”

6. “Engage the Community in a way that is Inclusive of a Diverse and Multi-Cultural Perspective.” In the words of Francine Pratt, another consultant on the project, “One of the things that was very important for this project is to make sure that we had voices at the table that are not normally at the table.”

She said that the team responsible for soliciting public input paid special attention to engaging people under 18 and adults 18 to 21, because by the time the project is built out, it needs to be something that younger people will want to use. Meanwhile, in terms of racial and ethnic diversity of people sharing input on Lake Springfield, Pratt said “those percentages are very close to matching the populations in Springfield.”

The latest plans were developed with input from more than 1,000 members of the public — a number equivalent to about one-seventh of 1 percent of Springfield’s adult population. The Lake Springfield plan is an outgrowth of the Forward SGF comprehensive plan launched in 2021, which included input from 1,500 people at face-to-face workshops and 7,000 participants online.

Community input on Lake Springfield planning was collected since late 2022 through a series of public meetings and online opportunities conducted by the City of Springfield. The planning process is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Commerce, which awarded what’s considered a fairly big planning grant — $800,000. That money is supplemented by an additional $200,000 from the Hatch Foundation.

The Lake Springfield area currently includes a 158-acre park with trails and a boathouse available for rentals. The park offers pavilions and a disc golf course along with kayak and canoe rentals, and the lake is available for fishing.

Gregory Holman is a KSMU reporter and editor focusing on public affairs.