Cedar Rapids Struggling To Maintain Rare Houseboat Harbor

By B.A. Morelli | October 15, 2019

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Time is running out on Ellis Harbor as erosion buckles infrastructure and creates safety hazards, residents of the out-of-the-way refuge on the Cedar River say.

And while the city has invested, they say, it has put little dent in the mountain of needs.

Sheet pilings, which secure the banks, are pulling away from land.

Sidewalks are caving in as dirt beneath washes away. Some have shifted enough to create 6-inch dips between panels.

And that’s just the usable parts. Sections that have become too dangerous have been barricaded with plastic orange fencing for up to three years, according to The Gazette .

“The harbor doesn’t have forever,” said Deanna McLaud, who lives in a houseboat on the inner cove part of the year and is Harbor Neighborhood Association president. “It is not sustainable the way it is now. More and more keeps falling in. The longer we let it go, the worse it gets … If it were any other sidewalk in a city park, they would have funded this.”

Opened in 1962, Ellis Harbor is a municipal-owned boat harbor with slips for lease for houseboats and boat houses where a neighborhood emerges each summer. There also are stalls for daily use and a boat launch.

It is seen as a unique asset for Cedar Rapids, and one of the few houseboat harbors in the Midwest.

While city officials have not publicly indicated any desire to close the harbor, which was a threat after the 2008 flood, they also have no long-term plan to fix it. With conditions worsening faster than repairs are occurring — particularly when it floods — it begs the question of what the future holds for the harbor.

“Every year it gets worse,” said John Hansen, who has had a houseboat there for six years and last year built a second.

Harbor users are relatively few, and the harbor is just one of many municipal budget needs.

“The cost of repairs is really high, and it serves a pretty small group of people,” said Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart, who urged harbor users to explore other funding options such as fundraising or grants based on its historic value.

The city has tackled harbor repairs, but they have been sporadic.

The past three years has seen $476,000 invested on non-routine maintenance, including more than 300 feet of sidewalk replaced out of the 6,000 feet of sidewalks; upgrading electrical lines; and stabilizing some of the bank.

“The $500,000 investment shows the city is not underinvesting relative to all of the other infrastructure projects the city has to complete every year,” Cedar Rapids City Council member Tyler Olson said.

No money exists for harbor repairs in the current year’s budget — fiscal 2020.

Jake Brummer, a three-year harbor resident, said he is glad to see the recent sidewalk work. He said it’s taken regular prodding to get attention, but he is optimistic more will happen.

“It’s good to actually see progress,” Brummer said. “It looks fantastic. I personally think they did a fantastic job, but what they did was 4 or 5 percent of what needs to be done.”

The 2011 “Ellis Harbor Business Plan and Feasibility Study” identified $10.1 million in needed maintenance, including bank stabilization and sidewalks. The sheet piling was at the end of its useful life. The report recommended relocating the harbor to the opposite bank of the river for an estimated cost of $6 million to $10 million.

Little of the recommended work has been completed. Costs have increased “significantly,” further challenging the situation, said Scott Hock, the Cedar Rapids parks and recreation director since 2018.

“Right now we will work on sidewalks as money becomes available,” Hock said. “There are a lot of needs in the city, so we have to prioritize where the dollars go.”

Hock noted the council sets priorities, and he has not heard any push to speed up funding of Ellis Harbor. Council members noted the city’s professional staff typically provides recommendations of where resources are needed most.

The city generates $140,000 a year from 170 renters. Long-term spaces typically fill up. Ellis Harbor expenses blend into the overall park system, so no clear estimate for annual operational costs exists, and it is unclear if rent revenue covers the operating costs, Hock said.

Harbor tenants said that while they want to see improvements, they don’t expect an overnight transformation — but they still want reliable progress.

“They are not being consistent about it,” Hansen said. “We want to see consistency.”

Several renters have been on the harbor for generations. McLaud has been coming since she was 5 with her family and began renting her own stall in 1991. These days she pays $600 a year — a good deal, she said.

“You get down here and you are in the city, but you are also away,” McLaud said. “It is a staycation and it is a family. It is our harbor family.”

“It is truly a unique experience,” Hansen said. “You wake up on the water, go outside and people are hanging out and grilling. You go for a walk about and see what your neighbors are doing.”

City Council member Ann Poe said she supports protecting the harbor, but she first wants to see the results of a river recreation study, which among other things will examine the harbor, the 5-in-1 Dam, the roller dam near Prairie Park Fishery, recreational uses and hydrology.

The study should offer clues for how to modernize the harbor, she said.

Once the study is done, the council and staff need to discuss a plan, she said.

“We do a lot in Cedar Rapids with place-making and creating that sense of place,” Poe said. “We try to create that synergy and energy. At Ellis Harbor, we already have that strong sense of place, and we don’t want to lose that; but we have to find ways to engage the community more.”

Marty Hoeger, a City Council member whose district includes Ellis Harbor, agreed a plan is needed.

“We got to just meet and come up with a master plan and say here is how we are going to do it,” Hoeger said. “Is it a five-year plan, a three-year plan, a 10-year plan? And, we need to get buy-in from the harbor community, and show them here is what it might cost (harbor users) and here is what it might cost the city.”

“I think we need to look at it in its entirety and say this is the future of Ellis Harbor.”

About B.A. Morelli

Morelli wrote this for The Gazette newspaper in Cedar Rapids.

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