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Possibilities abound for former power plant and land surrounding Lake Springfield

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From 1957 to 2018, Springfield’s power needs were met by the James River Power Station.

The five turbines at the 63,000-square-foot plant were fed by boilers that turned the water from Lake Springfield into steam to produce electricity. The water was then cooled and returned to the lake.

The plant in southeast Springfield was officially decommissioned Jan. 28 after more than 63 years of service. But for the plant and the 2,000 acres around it, the coals are stoked – figuratively speaking – for what the future could bring.

“It’s not just about the power plant; that’s only a small piece of the story,” says Randall Whitman, principal planner for the city of Springfield.

The property is owned by the city, City Utilities and the Springfield-Greene County Park Board. Lake Springfield – an artificial lake constructed by the damming of the James River – is part of it, and it offers activities like hiking and canoeing.

But Whitman says the lake isn’t the best for recreation.

“It’s really shallow, and it has silted in over the years,” he says. “The dam itself stops water and silt collects there. It’s really not a good lake for recreation.” The water is largely stagnant – “more of a wetland,” Whitman says.

The city could retain the property as a lake or wetland, but another option is to remove the dam and let the water once again flow downstream. A third option is to dredge silt from the lake and improve it for recreational use, though this would have to be an ongoing process; the silt is contaminated with pollutants, Whitman says.

Whitman cautions that it has been almost six decades since the dam was constructed, and things have changed.

“The path of the river would have to be basically redesigned,” he says.

It’s not unheard of, returning a river to its free-flowing form. Whitman pointed out that the U.S. House of Representatives is currently considering a bipartisan 21st Century Dams Act, which would make a $25.8 billion investment in repairing the nation’s existing dams or removing those that are no longer necessary.

The legislation indicates the United States has over 90,000 dams, and many – like the James River dam that created Lake Springfield – have outlived their useful life. If the act is successful, there could be funding to help Springfield reclaim the property to serve the community in a new way.

Tim Rosenbury, Springfield’s director of quality of place initiatives, says it just makes sense to maximize the recreational possibilities of Lake Springfield and the decommissioned power plant.

“Quality of place is one of the things that is intended to make Springfield as a community more competitive with other communities,” he says. “That seems to make sense as we’re seeing an in-migration to the Midwest of people from the coasts.”

This migration was happening before the pandemic, but there is evidence that COVID-19 accelerated the trend, according to Rosenbury.

“They’re not changing jobs, but they’re changing their hometowns, and they’re making decisions in part based on quality of life. Quality of life and quality of place are closely related,” he says.

Rosenbury, an architect by training, looks at the power plant and sees possibilities. There’s a significant amount of office space there, he says, but there also is a huge generator hall.

“It’s a massive cathedral-type space that you walk out on that has subterranean levels below it,” he says. “I could see it having recreational uses. … It would make an incredible indoor climbing facility.”

He could also picture basketball and volleyball courts laid end to end, as another possibility. Many other ideas will eventually come as the public is engaged, he says.

A planner like Whitman also looks at the site and sees almost no limit to the possibilities. The property has existing recreational infrastructure, including roads and trails, plus access to major highways. A rails-to-trails project is underway for the section of the old Frisco rail line known as the Chadwick Flyer, which will link Springfield and Ozark.

“It’s a good place for new development to occur, but we want to make sure it’s done right, with the right density, and in a way that’s sensitive to the environment,” he says.

The Lake Springfield area is about more than just a lake, according to Whitman.

“The lake really is just part of the story,” he says. “Our plan is to figure out what we can do with this 2,000 acres and make it a destination – make it almost a node or catalyst for new development and redevelopment and recreational opportunities.”

Chief among the concerns for development of the land is protecting the James River watershed and the riparian landscape. Trees will have to be preserved to prevent erosion, and not just any development will be suitable.

“We need a plan for what the city is going to do with this property as stewards of this real estate, stewards of the lake, the actual river itself,” Whitman says.

Callie Linville, business relations specialist with CU, says the utility is eager to see something more come of the property.

“We do see it as a community asset, and we don’t want to sit on it and see it get in disrepair and get too far gone,” she says. “We’re very open to what we can do with this.”

Public input will be sought on the future of the property into 2022, according to Whitman.

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