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Golden Goose or Albatross?

Rick Smith

The Gazette

February 6, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

   CEDAR RAPIDS — Vision Iowa money was intended as a boost for the state’s big cities and their plans to create attractions that would draw people to town.
   City leaders here now are trying to figure out if its $5 million Vision Iowa award — granted 16 months ago for the Cedar Bend redevelopment project — is worth fighting to keep or is better forgotten.
   ‘‘It’s too soon to know what will happen,’’ Mayor Kay Halloran said late last week.
   Monica Vernon, board president of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, weighed in last week, saying the chamber continues to support the city’s Vision Iowa effort.
   It is the chamber’s own Fifteen in 5 community planning venture, not the Cedar Bend proposal, though, that seems to have become the newer, fresher vehicle for moving the city ahead.
   Vernon said Fifteen in 5 and Cedar Bend — which share some of the same ideas, such as a community/activity center, riverfront improvement and parks and trails —can work together.
   She hopes the city does not give back the Vision Iowa grant: ‘‘Five million dollars is five million dollars.’’
   On Wednesday, a City Hall delegation will troop to Des Moines to formally ask the Vision Iowa Board to extend its contract with the city and its Cedar Bend project until April. The board chairman said last month he expected the board to grant the request. The city is asking because it has not raised more than $6 million in additional private funds for the project. It was supposed to have done so by mid-January.
   Whether the city can find that money is a big question. Another problem is that the project price tag — once at $34 million — has gone up, and it’s far from clear where that extra money would come from.
   The history is now long and winding when it comes to the city’s vision for the landfill, the brownfield areas south of downtown and an old sandpit along the Cedar River.
   But the redevelopment project consists of three core components, which the $5 million Vision Iowa grant is intended to help support:
   A community center featuring a year-round farmers market and space for the Witwer Senior Center, education classes and public gatherings.
   A park and trails on and around the landfill, which is slated to close this summer.
   A lake in what had been a water-filled, industrial sandpit.
   In addition, the city is moving ahead on its own with $6 million in street and streetscape improvements on Third Street SE and 14th Avenue SE in a portion of the Cedar Bend area also tagged as New Bohemia or the Third Street Arts and Entertainment District.
   There also is a promotional picture of a riverfront amphitheater if the day comes that a private investor wants to build one.
   District 2 council member Sarah Henderson, who has been and remains involved in the Fifteen and 5 effort, calls herself ‘‘an optimist,’’ but said last week the Cedar Bend problems remain formidable.
   A case in point is the recreational lake component of Cedar Bend, which had been expected to cost $3.6 million. One plan now has the price tag in the $12 million to $13 million range, including a waterside lodge. Even without the lodge, costs are at least twice what had been expected, Henderson said.
   Henderson said one possible, lingering impediment to raising private funds for Cedar Bend is the presence of the old Farmstead Food plant, owned privately and sitting in the heart of the Cedar Bend area.
   The city, she noted, also has promised the Vision Iowa board that the solid waste agency’s compost operation would move off the landfill site by 2009 to make way for a park. But where is that compost operation going to go, Henderson wondered. Can the agency, she asked, find a place for compost by 2009?
   The chamber’s Vernon last week did not dispute that most of the recent Fifteen in 5 committee update reports failed to make any mention of Cedar Bend.
   ‘‘It may seem like they’re two different things, and we’re at cross-purposes,’’ Vernon said. ‘‘But I don’t see it that way at all.
   ‘‘There’s a new City Council and a new mayor, who has done a very nice job of reaching out. I just see a lot of great things coming.’’
   Vernon said much of the Fifteen in 5 focus is on strengthening the downtown. And her definition of downtown extends to include the Cedar Bend area.
   Cedar Bend is to Cedar Rapids’ downtown as the Navy Pier is to Chicago’s, she suggested: ‘‘It’s part of our core community along the banks of the river.’’
   Vernon noted that Des Moines, Dubuque and Davenport have all used Vision Iowa money to reinvigorate their downtowns.
   David Chadima, a member of the Fifteen in 5 committee focusing on the Third Street Arts and Entertainment District, said last week that Fifteen in 5 and Cedar Bend should ‘‘integrate their efforts.’’
   The city, he added, should do all it can to keep the $5 million Vision Iowa grant.
   ‘‘Do you know,’’ he asked, ‘‘how hard it is to raise $5 million?’’