Placeholder riverfront

The Missouri River flows in the background as seen through the Riverfront gazebo.

We’re willing to bet that St. Joseph will not spend $91 million on riverfront development.

Any takers? The odds are in our favor, but what’s the over-under on something happening at all after years of studies and architectural drawings? Political momentum seems to be moving toward some sort of public investment to capitalize on an underutilized community asset.

Even in a year of devastating flooding, even with budget talks that focus on hard choices, the St. Joseph City Council shouldn’t flinch from its goal of turning the riverfront into more than parking lots and walking trails. Indeed, voters signaled their desire for riverfront investment with approval of a hotel-motel tax that promises to generate $12 million by 2030.

One of the selling points for that tax, approved eight years ago, was to bring more attractions to the riverfront.

The problem is that the expansive nature of a consultant’s recommendation might not pass the chuckle test, especially in a year of massive flooding. SWT Design’s riverfront study, financed with hotel-motel tax revenue, illustrates the difference between consultants who deal in the world of possibilities and elected leaders who work within the constraints of budgets and realities.

The council made the right choice in giving unanimous approval to this plan, but the gesture was largely symbolic. The real work comes in the months and years ahead as the city looks to advance this plan on a project-by-project basis.

This is where the city could put skeptics at ease with more of a concrete outline of which projects in this $91 million wish list are really priorities. Taken on a case-by-case basis, many of these make sense, even for an area that remains prone to flooding.

Trails, a restaurant, an RV campground, a playground or pedestrian trails? What the city needs to consider is not just which projects are feasible, but which ones don’t leave catastrophic damage in the event of flooding.

Think of the Heritage Park softball complex. It would be nice if it didn’t flood, but it’s not the same thing as losing a factory or a housing development. Some items are appropriate for the riverfront, both as an amenity but also as a fairly safe bet for development in a flood plain.

Don’t let sticker shock get in the way. The SWT study reminds us of the musician who vows to price his next album at $1 million. Asked why anyone would buy that, the musician replies that he only needs to sell one.

This consultant sold St. Joseph on its one, big plan. Now it’s up to the city to parse that down into something that gains public support and moves St. Joseph forward in turning its riverfront into a source of pride.