City priority: Pursue infrastructure and trail development at Chaplain Schmitt Island

Improved roads and new trails could emerge at Chaplain Schmitt Island in Dubuque as city officials plan to focus their attention on developing the location.

Dubuque City Council members recently named the implementation of the Chaplain Schmitt Island Master Plan as a top priority for city staff, paving the way for the city to pursue infrastructure and improvement projects at the island that holds Q Casino and the Mystique Community Ice Center.

Dubuque Planning Services Manager Wally Wernimont said the city, during the next year, will prioritize securing funding for a project to improve roadways leading to and within the island, along with developing new trails, including a potential boardwalk around the island’s perimeter.

“Right now, our big priority is to improve access to the island,” Wernimont said. “The project we are working on right now will help facilitate traffic flow there.”

City staff already have detailed a project to make improvements to 16th Street, including constructing three roundabouts along the road, located at the intersections of Elm Street, Kerper Boulevard and Admiral Sheehy Drive. The project also includes significant improvements to Elm Street and the construction of a pedestrian and vehicle overpass on 14th Street.

City Manager Mike Van Milligen said the project would greatly improve access to the island. The city already has applied for a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s RAISE to provide the majority of funding for the design of the project.

If the design portion is funded, city officials hope to use funds from the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill, which requires approval from the House of Representatives.

“It’s a big project just to design it,” Van Milligen said. “Securing funding is going to be essential.”

While the road project remains the cynosure of the city’s development plans for the island, Wernimont said staff also are looking into constructing new trail systems throughout the island.

“We want to expand the trail system … and get trails that meet regular standards on the island,” Wernimont said.

Along with improving pedestrian and bike access to the island, Wernimont said the city could potentially construct a boardwalk that would loop around the island, passing through the island’s remaining natural areas.

Wernimont stressed that several years could pass before the city begins construction on any new trails on the island, with funding for the projects remaining a primary barrier to completion.

If the projects are completed, Kevin Lynch, chair of the Dubuque Racing Association Executive Committee, said they could serve as the catalyst for future private investment on the island.

“There usually has to be some investment from the city first to get the ball rolling on other things,” Lynch said. “Those street improvements could be what gets more private investment started.”

Major private investments were seemingly underway at the island prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, the Dubuque Racing Association’s Board of Directors approved a $22 million plan to construct an eight-story hotel at the Q Casino and Hotel site.

Lynch said progress on the hotel project was halted at the onset of the pandemic, which caused Q Casino to temporarily close. While the project is still in limbo, Lynch said DRA officials hope to re-ignite development of the project in the near future.

With the new focus on development from the city, Lynch added that the potential for new projects at Chaplain Schmitt Island is higher than ever.

“That island has the potential to become the great destination of Dubuque,” Lynch said. “I’m truly excited about its future.”