Editorial: 2012: Sidewalks, geoHVAC, Cookson and new HS gym
Op-Ed · January 02, 2013

Hopefully we are not the only ones who thought this year went by fast. Still, as always, when we reach our last newspaper of the year we feel it necessary to take a look back on the past 12 months to see how the news evolved around our wishes and goals for 2012.

So let’s jump in:

• Cookson Community Center: When the year started, we had the strong impression the building would not reopen. It looked like sell or tear down, possibly using the space for a future community center or library or both. Now the property is in the hands of Lynch’s Excavating, which plans to tear down the building and replace it with several houses. The heavy lifting now shifts to Lynch’s, while the city’s part will next entail site plans and zoning. This wish can now be checked off this list.

• Hoover Elementary geothermal HVAC: The bills from the past year are not casting a good light on the $2.7 million project. The numbers show that, instead of saving money, it is costing about $10,700 more per year. Unfortunately, the information came in after West Branch Community Schools installed geoHVAC in the new high school gymnasium-and-weight-room addition. It did seem very promising. Hopefully we learned a lesson there.

• School finances: We hoped the Board of Education and West Branch Education Association would feel the district’s finances were strong enough to negotiate a multi-year contract, but that was not the case. However, the teachers saw a contract increase of 3.76 percent, which amounts to more than a half a percent more than the prior year. Enrollment is always iffy, but there does not seem to be any strong swings to the negative in the past few years.

• Industrial growth: Acciona unveiled its first locally made 3-megawatt wind turbine while work progressed on its 6MW Pioneer Grove wind farm in Mechanicsville. The company is OK for the next year on contracts, but the entire wind industry has been holding its breath on Congress extending the production tax credit which, in part, gives a 2.2-cent tax credit for every kilowatt of energy produced by wind power. In other news, Altorfer took steps to open a dealership south of Interstate 80. The company will sell industrial equipment, and for a town this size, it will be a healthy-sized new business in town. We are glad they are coming.

• Wastewater treatment plant: The City of West Branch made some big strides in this project if by nothing else than to provide us with a clearer picture of what the final plant may cost or even look like. We still do not have those important “ammonia levels” the environmental agencies keeps promising, but the city is testing a Bio Dome unit, a 20-foot long cargo container submerged in the wastewater lagoon. If the unit works, filling the lagoon with these containers could cost $800,000 to $1 million, which is about a fifth of the $5 million price tag the city estimated a few years ago. Further, the city has been fixing broken sanitary sewer pipes to keep more and more rainwater out, meaning less water to process. The city seems to be getting more of a handle on this problem that seemed almost overwhelming a few years back.

• Sidewalks: This was probably the biggest frustration of the year: the City Council rejecting a $250,000 grant to build five new sidewalks and a pedestrian bridge. Why? Because a majority of the council felt the city could not afford up to $140,000 in costs the grant may not have covered. The council is trying to make up for that, though. Council member Dan O’Neil is working on a new grant application to Safe Routes To School. And, the council found money to build a sidewalk on Oliphant Street and behind the West Branch Middle School to get things started.

• Heritage Museum: The museum got an overhaul this past year, from a new roof to many internal fixes with the help of a $30,000 Main Street Iowa Challenge grant in February. However, it has yet to reopen with regular hours. We are still hopeful that the Heritage Foundation can find a way to reach this goal soon. Two years earlier, the building was placed on the National Endangered Building List. Perhaps it can get off that list.

• Comprehensive plan: It’s done! You can find the completed document on the City of West Branch’s Web site, We are glad to see it done, and you can read about some of the highlights in the near future in the West Branch Times. But sidewalks, a community center and a new library are all mentioned in there, even if we don’t quite know when we can really get to it all. Next will be a capital improvement plan — buying equipment and land and any construction projects — which will draw heavily from the comprehensive plan.

• New gymnasium and weight room: The $2.7 million, 14,000-square-foot addition to West Branch High School opened in January and got put to use immediately. Gobs of groups have been keeping the lights on in the practice gymnasium and the expanded weight training program has done nothing but good for our teams this past year. More students than ever are lifting weights and getting in shape, and we are excited to see that.

It should be noted that when we laid out our goals and wishes for 2012, we commented on the national economy and how it appeared to be showing more signs of improvement in 2011 and that we hoped it would continue. We wanted that for more certainty and confidence in local projects.

Then we heard a new term this year: Fiscal cliff. As of this writing, our nation’s top elected leaders are working on it, and hopefully very close to finished.

So there we are. Another year in the history books. The city and school continue to move forward, as well as the private sector, downtown and housing.

Merry Christmas!

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