To invest in future growth, the City of Norfolk is working to reclaim its past.

The river restoration project is moving along, and work is scheduled to begin early next year.

The project consists of several parts. The first is the actual river restoration. This entails removing the spillway near First Street, making it possible for kayakers and tubers to navigate a longer span of the river, said Steve Rames, city engineer.

Another part of the project is replacing the First Street bridge. The current bridge is nearing the end of its life and would be unsafe for recreationists to pass under, Rames said.

The next portion of the project focuses on pedestrian trails and bridges along and across the river, as well as drop points for kayaks and tubes, Rames said. There will be two pedestrian bridges crossing the river, as well as trails going under the new First Street bridge.

Finally, Johnson Park will see some improvements, Rames said. The city plans to refurbish the playground equipment and parking lot and add an amphitheater and water feature.

The city council approved a contract for the final design of the First Street bridge at its Feb. 16 meeting. Bids are slated to go out in September with construction starting in January 2022, Rames said.

The bridge, along with a large drainage feature, should be finished by July 2022, Rames said.

The river portion of the project is also expected to start in January 2022 and should be finished around September or October of that year, Rames said.

Then work on the trails and pedestrian bridges will start, Rames said. That work, along with the Johnson Park improvements, should be finished by early 2023.

Rames said there would be opportunities for public feedback on the project in late March or early April.

When the project is finished, a kayaker or tuber could get in the river north of East Benjamin Avenue and navigate down to a take-out point south of Norfolk Avenue.

THE PROJECT will cost just under $12 million. Rames thinks it will be worth the cost, though, he said.

“It’s a big project,” he said. “There’s a lot of potential for redevelopment that will really give the downtown an economic boost.”

Rames believes the project will help attract workers to Norfolk when it’s completed, he said.

“The labor market is very tight here,” he said. “Whether you’re looking for employees on the industrial side, or you’re looking for employees on the tech side, a project like this raises everybody’s boat, so to speak.”

Mayor Josh Moenning said such projects are important if Norfolk is going to grow.

“This is investing in growth,” he said. “This is about creating a better Norfolk that retains our young people and is attractive to newcomers.”

The funds for the project have mostly come from the city, but the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District and grants also have helped fund the project, Moenning said.

“The money has been raised and committed through planning,” he said. “More than two-thirds of the total project cost of this has been budgeted by the City of Norfolk by parks and recreation dollars. The other funding has come from partnerships and grants.”

Other city projects, such as street maintenance, will not suffer from this project, Moenning said.

“We are not diverting funds from streets to do this project,” he said. “This project, everything surrounding the riverfront and Johnson Park improvements has not involved a tax increase of any kind. It’s not involved a bond.”

In fact, Moenning said the city has been spending record amounts on street repairs and maintenance.

“We have dedicated in the last three years, more money to street maintenance than Norfolk ever has. In this next year, we’ll hit a new high,” he said. “It’s not an either/or situation.”

RIVER RESTORATION will put Norfolk in touch with its past, Moenning said.

“That area of the North Fork is historically significant to the community. It’s where the community started,” he said. “It gave the community life and its name.”

Today, many residents may not view the river positively, Rames said.

“The river, I think, for a long time now has probably been thought more of as this dirty ditch in your backyard,” he said. “We want to turn it back into that river component that was enjoyed for decades after we were founded as a city.”

There will environmental benefits, too, Rames said.

“One of the biggest impacts from an environmental perspective is aquatic species’ movement up and down the river,” he said.

The spillway makes it difficult, if not impossible, for most species to travel the length of the river, Rames said. Removing the spillway will change that.

The city plans to incorporate fish bypasses in the design, too, Rames said.

RAMES SAID the idea of restoring the river is not new.

“The concept of a restoration of the river around Johnson Park started back in the early ’70s,” he said. But, “nothing really happened of much significance until the latter part of 2008.”

Since then, similar projects have taken place across the country and Midwest, Rames said.

“The engineering around these river restorations continued to develop. By 2017, there were several models of these restorations around the country that we could look at and really define our concept of what this was going to look like,” Rames said. “Being able to have some of that vision from these other communities and other projects helped us refine our vision and helped us show our true vision to the community.”

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