Jackson County supervisors Nov. 12 turned down a request to set another public hearing on a possible general fund loan for cabins and campground developments at Prairie Creek Recreation Area.

In March, the supervisors had turned down a request for a $2.5 million loan for the campground and cabins. The loan would have been backed by the county’s general fund, although conservation director Daryl Parker said that anticipated revenues from the development would cover the loan payments.

On Tuesday, Supervisor Jack Willey said he hesitated to re-start the public conversation on a Prairie Creek loan before a bond vote for a new jail, which could be set for March. 

The county is proposing to build a new $6 million-plus jail on a property on Jacobsen Drive in Maquoketa. Two previous bond referendums, which would have built different-capacity jails on a site near Wal-Mart, failed in 2018 and 1019. 

“I want to see the outcome of that vote,” Willey said. 

The November Prairie Creek project request was a half-million less than the loan considered earlier in the year. 

“It’s a $3 million project, so it’s up to the conservation department to come up with $1 million,” Parker said.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Supervisor Larry McDevitt, who also sits on the Jackson County Conservation Board, made a motion to set the public hearing, but the motion died for lack of a second.

Parker is retiring, and Nathan Jones will start as conservation director Jan. 6.

Parker said he will work with Jones after the first of the year. Parker has about 10 working days left in 2020.  

“Had that campground thing gone through, I was going to stay around for that project. But when that got voted down, I decided that was my time to step down and let someone take it on,” Parker said.

He also said that faith in Jones’ ability to shepherd Conservation and the county through the Prairie Creek project contributed to the board’s hiring decision.

“It took a long time to get the program where it’s at,” Parker said. “He’ll take the ball and run with it and be just fine. It’s going be a transition.”

McDevitt said it would be a boon to have Jones working on Prairie Creek grants and funding while Parker is still “on the books” to ask questions. Those grants often require a local match — hence pursuing the loan before the grant applications.

The Nov. 12 request came after a public meeting that left conservation officials hopeful about restarting the loan process.

“I’m just the messenger here,” Parker told the supervisors. “Hopefully this is a something that can come to fruition.”

“I hope you’re on board to help us out in our time of need,” Supervisor Mike Steines said after the failed motion.

“Sure,” Parker replied. “Good luck with everything.” 

Later that evening, Parker told the Conservation board that the project is now “hanging in the wind.”

Conservation board head Don Yanda said waiting until after the proposed jail vote in March “is the right thing to do.”

However, Conservation board member Lori Roling said the county needs to be more aggressive on the project. 

“This is a project we really need to get going on,” she said.

While the supervisors wanted to wait until new director Jones got his bearings on his new job, Roling said that when Jones starts, “I think it’s trial by fire. We just throw him into the fire.”

If the project is put on hold until after a March jail referendum vote, Conservation likely couldn’t move dirt on the project until 2022 at the earliest, Parker explained. He estimated that it would take a year or two after loan approval for conservation to raise the remaining $1 million needed for the project.

“Maybe it’s time for the messenger to sail into the sunset,” Parker said, alluding to his upcoming retirement.

This news came before Conservation board members saw the abysmal 2019 camping revenue numbers.

Camping at Jackson County campgrounds in 2019 dropped by 48 percent from a year ago, with campgrounds closed for much of the season due to flooding.

Spruce Creek campground in Bellevue generates an average of more than $57,000 per year, but that number decreased by 67 percent this year because it was only open for 11 weeks, Parker explained.

Revenues were down 27 percent in South Sabula.

Conservation board member Jim England said those low numbers helped show how much the county would benefit from non-flood-prone camping areas, such as at Prairie Creek Recreation Area.

“What scares me,” Parker said, “is what’s happened at Spruce Creek the last five years” with flooding and decreased campground use. “It’s a downward spiral, and I don’t think the trend is going to end. I think you’ll see more long-term flooding.”

Additional reporting by Kelly Gerlach.