Johnston Seeks Support for MHR Gateway Master Plan

In 2013 the City of Johnston undertook a significant Master Planning and public engagement project for a 123 acre area called the Merle Hay Road Gateway. Following this effort, the City submitted a portion of the area to be admitted to the 2014 inaugural round of the State’s Iowa Reinvestment District Program. 

The program allows a portion of new sales, service and hotel and motel tax to be collected within the district for use within a Reinvestment District for up to 20 years. The City’s submission was not approved in favor of other projects at the time. Since then the City has undertaken multiple projects that were laid out in the 2013 Master Planning project in the Gateway area. Such projects already finished or underway are: Terra Park & Terra Lake, two kayak launch installations, planned dedication of land for a dog park, trail investments, proposed Merle Hay Road and Johnston Drive improvements, the proposed Ignit project and more. Click here for a document summarizing the full timeline of the Master Planning project and what may be expected in the next couple of years. 

In 2020, the State funded the Reinvestment District program with $100 million for the first time since 2014. The City then put together a new Reinvestment District pre-application for a 75-acre area in the Gateway District. For a map of the proposed area click here. The intention of the pre-application is to lay out the City’s vision for the Reinvestment District, provide as much detail as possible on possible projects and identify funding gaps. 

The City is requesting $4,399,740 to help fund gaps for potential projects identified in the pre-application and to advance Phase I of the Gateway Plan. With two other applicants asking for $30 million each, the competition for funding is expected to be fierce. 

This Reinvestment District area will include future projects such as:

  • Ignit Sports and Fitness:  which is expected to generate 396,396 visitors annually; 71,898 of these annual visitors are expected to arrive from over 150+ miles away. Catch Des Moines estimates the overall direct annual economic impact at $57,000,000. This can be found in the Economic Impact section of the pre-application.
  • Gateway Park: Proposed City park, trail and road infrastructure improvements supporting the Ignit facility and adjoining Reinvestment District properties.
  • Western Gateway: Proposed hotel and commercial development integrated with Ignit and connected through Gateway Park improvements.
  • Central Kayak Launch: Proposed City infrastructure improvements to include historic sign renovation, construction of a central kayak launch, a sports rental facility, and a relocation site for the Inter-Urban rail building (currently located on Johnston Drive east of the bike trail).
  • Eastern Gateway: Proposed mixed-use development including an ecological themed hotel capitalizing on the Central Kayak Launch improvements.
  • Heard Gardens Mixed-Use: A proposed mixed-use redevelopment site located east of Merle Hay and north of Johnston Drive.
  • Western Parcels: Key commercial properties with private redevelopment or renovation opportunities benefiting from proposed infrastructure improvements.

This plan will also economically benefit the majority of the sub-areas that are either underdeveloped or undeveloped. An independent economic impact analysis is planned to be completed prior to submission of a final application. So there is more to be included if the City’s pre-application is advanced. The City plans to invest a total of $122 million in the areas natural amenities as described in the Master Planning project.

One of the challenges for the project is a requirement that the City prove that the district is “unique in nature”:

‘“Unique nature” means a quality or qualities of the projects to be developed in a district which, when considered in the entirety, will substantially distinguish the district’s projects from other existing or proposed developments in the state.”

In the pre-application, the City notes that the district will contrast traditional auto-centric commercial development and be a unique multi-modal district to the metro and Iowa. It will reinvigorate the Merle Hay Corridor, connecting the Johnston Town Center and Merle Hay Mall districts. This would then create an environment and opportunity for commercial development to thrive while maintaining and enhancing the natural resources in the area that will distinguish this project as being truly unique. Ultimately, benefiting the local, regional and state economy.

According to the Iowa Economic Development website, pre-applications will be scored and approved by the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) Board. This process is designed to allow applicants to make reasonable changes to the proposed district plan before the final application is considered. Final applications are then due prior to next years application filing window. As the applications move forward, the City will continue to update the Johnston community and area developers.