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Iowa Great Lakes Region rides a wave of momentum

Communities unite

Iowa is known for its rolling plains and cornfields, but it also has its share of hidden gems. Among the state’s “best kept secrets” are the Iowa Great Lakes. Tucked into the corner of northwest Iowa, the area is home to seven expansive glacier-carved lakes External Site that dominate the landscape. This includes three of Iowa’s largest natural lakes: Spirit Lake, East Okoboji and West Okoboji.

While the Iowa Great Lakes Region is home to more than 17,000 permanent residents, it also sees more than 1 million tourists visit each year.  To help meet the diverse needs of its residents, the county is working to improve the health and lives of the people who call the area home, and continue to attract visitors seeking a unique travel destination.

As a result of all the improvements the community has undertaken to make the area a great place to live, Iowa Great Lakes Region received the 2022 Healthy HometownSM Powered by Wellmark Community AwardOpens New Window. Here are just a few projects Iowa Great Lakes Region completed in the last year that helped them earn this recognition.

Trail connections and improvements increase safety

Growing and improving the trails system in Dickinson County has been a major initiative of the Iowa Great Lakes Region. With 35 miles of trails, the latest project involved adding nearly five miles of new trail segments that extended existing trails and provided connections between others.

“We want to offer safer options from street routes that had previously been used as connections between existing trails,” says Erin Reed, executive director of the Dickinson County Trails Board. “It’s safer and keeps bikes off the windy roads. It has created a more cohesive, inviting and enjoyable trails system.”

The project also included drainage improvements, additional parking areas, trailheads, plus many trail-friendly amenities like restrooms, water fountains, charging stations and bike racks.

 “The pandemic really increased usage of our trails,” says Reed. “It opened people’s eyes to the tremendous impact these trails have on our community. Donations are up and we secured grant money to make the projects happen. It’s unusual to make this much progress so quickly; it’s exciting and encouraging.”

Community response to the trails project has been overwhelmingly positive. “More and more people are traveling here for our bike trails,” says Reed. “We were known for our lakes, but now we’re becoming known for our trails.”

The trails projects make recreation in the Lakes region more equitable. “You don’t have to own a boat to enjoy the lakes,” adds Reed. “Everyone can use the parks and trails. In the summertime, it’s easier to get around on a bike than a car.”

Park and beautification projects create enjoyment

Iowa Great Lakes made so many park improvements in the last year, there are too many to mention. Perhaps the most popular is the development of East Lake Park. This project took an unused space of property along the lake and made it into a public green space and park, accessible by car, bike or boat.

The project was a partnership between the City of Okoboji, the Iowa DNR and Imagine Iowa Great Lakes External Site , a donor group that has created a strategic vision to guide beautification and enhancement efforts in the area.

The centerpiece of the park is the Minnie Queen play structure, an inclusive playground shaped like the excursion boat on Lake Okoboji. “It’s just iconic, and with the lake front, shade trees, native grasses and shrubs that surround the playground, it’s also beautiful,” says Reed. “There are so many fun things to do, it’s on the bike trail, has plenty of parking, bike racks, benches and picnic tables. You wouldn’t believe how much it gets used. If it’s a nice day, there are always kids there playing.”

Many other areas of Dickinson County benefited from park improvements and beautification efforts. This includes public art, fountains, painted furniture, shoreline cleanups, flower and tree plantings, bike racks, light and bench installations, and so much more. “Combined, all of the public art and beautification projects really make it a joy to be outside,” says Katy Burke of Dickinson County Public Health.

Drive-thru donations provide relief to food-insecure families

To connect food-insecure families to additional sources of nutritious food during the pandemic, the Dickinson County Hunger Coalition stepped up its efforts in 2020 and 2021. They participated in four rounds of the USDA COVID Relief Farmers to Families Program, each time bringing one to two boxes filled with 25 pounds of food to 3,800 local families in Dickinson and surrounding counties.

“Cars were lined up hours in advance,” says Burke. The program distributed 57 tons of healthy, fresh food at the drive-through giveaway events.

Another successful program coordinated by Hunger Coalition volunteers involved working with Hy-Vee grocery stores on food rescue. Twice a month, large amounts of food that would have gone to the landfill were delivered to families in need and local pantries. As part of the program, Hy-Vee also donated 50 thanksgiving meals to local families.

Donation Gardens teach children and feed families

Another successful program, called Donation Gardens, was established to supply low-income households with fresh produce. The program provided an interactive, outdoor nutrition education classroom for children ages 7 to 16 attending Camp Foster, the YMCA summer camp.

The Dickinson County Community Gardens worked with master gardeners and the ISU extension, as well as dozens of volunteers, to develop and run the program, and distribute it to people in need.

Campers were taught where food comes from, how to grow it, how to make healthier choices, and ultimately, the impact gardening can have on the community. Throughout the growing season, they planted everything from marigolds to watermelons, pumpkins, kale, strawberries and more. They also learned about composting, recycling and reusing.

Donation Gardens ultimately reached 1,080 children. “It was the most popular program at Camp Foster,” says Burke, “The campers were so excited to learn about gardening. They experienced so much, including the satisfaction of tasting vegetables when they are freshly picked from the garden.”

So far, the gardens have provided 2,068 pounds of fresh produce to over 80 families in need. Due to the popularity of the program, it will return to Camp Foster in 2022.

What’s next for Iowa Great Lakes Region?

While the Iowa Great Lakes Region has been juggling its share of projects, there are many more on the horizon. This includes more plans to improve parks, expand the trails and improve the overall well-being of people who live there.

“As you can imagine, this has all been quite a puzzle to piece together,” says Reed. “When you have this many communities working together, it takes a lot of work to get everyone on the same page to move forward. But it’s worth it.”

“Healthy Hometown has helped provide us with a framework,” adds Reed. “A blank page isn’t as motivating as you might think. You really need a roadmap for success. They’ve provided guidance and a place to start.”

“Right now, we’re enjoying the recognition of being awarded a Healthy Hometown,” adds Reed. “We are really proud of what we were able to accomplish despite the pandemic.”

Her advice for other communities? “Just keep working at it. Dream big. Keep pushing forward. There are a lot of times that people assume we have it made here in this corner of the state, but we’ve worked hard to make things happen.”

Winning Healthy Hometown has been a source of community pride, as well. “People are really excited about it,” says Burke. “It’s such a bright spot. It’s unifying and momentum building.”

“Overall, it’s really been amazing to see our community work together to make this a great place to live,” adds Burke. “In late April, we are planning to celebration. We’ll take a look at how far we’ve come, and what we plan to do now that we have this award to move us forward. It’s adding new life to our work. It gives us momentum.”

Learn more about Healthy Hometown 

The Healthy HometownSM Powered by Wellmark Community Award is an annual award that celebrates the successes of communities in Iowa and South Dakota that are working to make their hometowns healthier, more active places to live. If you want to follow in Iowa Great Lakes Region’s footsteps and make positive changes to your community, check out Healthy Hometown online opens in new window or email Send Email for more information.