Charles City, Iowa

Situated on the Cedar River, Charles City experienced record flooding in 1999 and 2008. Something needed to be done with the space along the damaged riverfront and something had to be done to prevent future flooding. The city responded with an innovative project to build a new riverfront park with a kayak course.

The Prairie Rapids group of paddle boat enthusiasts came up with the idea of the whitewater course, and City Administrator Tom Brownlow took the idea and ran with it, recognizing its potential benefits to residents of Charles City, both as an improvement to their quality of life and as a site to attract tourist dollars. Working with multiple partners and securing funding from a variety of sources, Brownlow and the city’s elected officials turned the park into a reality.

The kayak course was created on a 23-acre open area that was mostly flood-buyout land, replacing a dangerous low-head dam with two rock structures to create whitewater rapids adjacent to downtown Charles City. It is the only whitewater course in Iowa and there is nothing like it within 1,000 miles.

The course is immensely popular with kayakers and tubers and has been a magnet for visitors from all over the Midwest. As a result, local businesses and hotels have seen an increase in sales.

But more important, the new Riverfront Park has become a focal point of activity for Charles City residents. The park includes a boat launch, walking trail, amphitheater, labyrinth, disc golf course, and other amenities that have completely transformed the waterfront. It has spurred community involvement and civic pride, with Eagle Scouts doing projects for Riverfront Park, middle school students winning national contests for environmental projects, and scores of people volunteering.

Paying for the project also helped build state and local partnerships. Funding included a $571,000 Iowa Great Places grant, $468,000 from the Department of Natural Resources for dam safety and a boat ramp, about $250,000 from the city’s hotel-motel tax, and $425,000 in local donations. No property tax money was used.

Some people thought it was crazy to build a whitewater park in Charles City, but Brownlow believed in its potential, and now the city’s whitewater course is hailed as an example to towns all over the country on how you can take a river problem and convert it into a valuable asset for the entire community.

Meet the Manager

Tom Brownlow

City Administrator
Tom Brownlow served as city administrator of Charles City from 2006 to 2014. Described as “continuously innovative,” he was named Iowa City Manager of the Year in 2012.