by Bekah Porter

CEDAR RAPIDS – In a wide-sweeping speech that touched on such topics as flood protection, job creation and government services, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett recently delivered his State of the City address.

He touched on three main topics — the current state of the city, trusting the government and Cedar Rapids’ future.

Here’s a look at what he had to say on the issues:

Current state of the city
“We are turning the corner and approaching the straightway,” he said.

He highlighted some of the city’s recent accomplishments and milestones that the city will reach this year, including:

• Demolishing 708 flood-damaged properties, purchasing almost 800 houses, compiling a buyout list of 115 businesses and rehabilitating more than 900 flood-damaged homes
• Working to invest some $40 million into a construction project that would build more than 200 housing units in the city’s core neighborhoods
• Recently selecting the location for the new Central Fire Station
• Breaking ground later this year on the new library and the new amphitheater/levee project
• Continuing restoration of the Paramount Theatre
• Continuing renovation of the U.S. Cellular Center and the adjoining hotel, as well as beginning construction on the new Convention Center later this year
• Moving City Hall back downtown in the coming months
• Relocating the new Animal Control Facility to the Kirkwood Community College Campus

He then mentioned several non-city projects that are moving forward, including the new year-round market, the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library making progress on its expanded facility, the new Human Services campus and more.

“When you combine the funding for all of these projects, it adds up to $778 million,” Mr. Corbett said. “That includes federal, state and private sector support from local companies, and the Hall-Perrine Foundation has stepped up with major awards. And, of course, the total includes donations from individuals… This truly has been a community effort.”

From there, he addressed local jobs.

Specifically, the mayor said jobs have been and would be created as a result of numerous local companies’ decisions, including:

• Physician’s Clinic of Iowa’s (PCI) decision to build a $30 million medical mall downtown
• Mercy Medical Center’s announcement that it would be adding a $25 million cancer center
• Rockwell Collins’ decision to move 400 jobs to downtown Cedar Rapids to make room for 400 new engineers at other locations companywide; additionally, Rockwell Collins announced last week that it will add another 200 jobs in addition to the engineer positions
• Ruffalo Cody, SecurityCoverage, Danisco, CRST and Divine Engineering all announced growth in the past weeks

He then added that some seven to 10 additional major companies are anticipated to reveal expansions later this year.

“Not all signs are positive, but the optimism is better today than  a year ago,” Mr. Corbett said. “Cedar Rapids should not have to settle for second place to anyone. We should lead in job creation, work ethic, quality of life, education, health care, recreation and cultural amenities.”

He went on to say that he wanted Cedar Rapids to be remembered as a community that rose above.

“There are those who will look to the flood of 2008 and view it as the defining moment (for Cedar Rapids),” he said. “I disagree. I believe it’s not the catastrophic event that defines a community. Instead, it’s how that community responds to the catastrophe. To suffer the largest disaster in the state of Iowa’s history and to come back is something to be proud of, and each and every one of you should be proud.”

Trusting the government
Mr. Corbett started addressing this topic by admitting that it is a tricky one to discuss.

“All around this country, we see turmoil daily in various states and the pending shut-down of the federal government,” he said. “This issue about trusting government — specifically, not trusting — keeps cropping up. It is very fashionable to beat up on government and those involved. You are not going to see me pile on and join that bandwagon today.”

Instead, the mayor said that he wanted those listening to consider the seemingly small things that the local government accomplishes on a daily basis, including running water (which was voted the Best Tasting Drinking Water in the State in 2010), working sewer systems, plowed streets, responsive emergency personnel and more.

“You trust government with something very personal: your health, your safety, your life,” he said. “We don’t have a department of agriculture or a department of energy. We have water, fire, street, sewer, public works, parks and police departments… City government is really all about public safety and public infrastructure — infrastructure that allows businesses, people and the entire private sector to grow and thrive.”

Cedar Rapids’ future
The community’s well-being relies on one thing, Mr. Corbett said.

“Our economic future depends on our ability to protect our city from future flooding,” he said. “There has not been a day since I was elected that I haven’t thought about flood protection.”

He said the business case for flood protection is straightforward and compelling.

“It comes up in every conversation I have relating to businesses that want to expand, locate or relocate in Cedar Rapids. It boils down to risk,” he said. “Having flood protection lowers the risk of flooding, and that means a greater opportunity for new investments. We know many reinvested after the flood, but not everyone. We have many businesses that did not: mid-size businesses like Swiss Valley Farms and small businesses like Polehna’s meat market. Flood protection gives businesses the confidence and security necessary to invest and create jobs.”

But for flood protection to be effective, it has to address both sides of the river.

“Most people understand that if you protect one side (the east side), then it will only make flooding worse on the west side,” Mr. Corbett said. “So, why did the Army Corps of Engineers only recommend protecting the east side then? A formula. That’s why. A formula that one could argue is outdated… Are we going to govern or make decisions about our community based on some formula? I would hope not.”

He said it is the cost of the comprehensive flood protection system that becomes difficult. The first option is to get a local match. The federal government pays 65 percent of federally-approved  projects, while states and local governments share the remaining 35 percent.

Because the Army Corps recommended the east side of the project, the government will contribute to that half. However, the city and state will be left with the full balance of the west side of the project.

This will be costly.

As of now, the federal government will contribute only $65 million to the $375 million project, leaving Cedar Rapids to contribute some $310 million. Mr. Corbett said that he is looking to raise some of the funds by extending a 1-percent local-option sales tax for 20 years.

The measure would put 50 percent of those earnings toward establishing and maintaining a flood protection system, while 40 percent would go for street improvements and 10 percent for property-tax relief. That 1-percent sales tax extension could provide up to $190 million for flood protection.

A second option would be to raise property taxes, Mr. Corbett said.

“We need to come up (with around) $170 million to $180 million,” he said. “The city’s annual general fund budget is $99 million. You can see that it would be a significant increase in property taxes, making the dream of home ownership more difficult. And again, it would raise the cost of doing business in Cedar Rapids for businesses and industries, hurting our chance to create more jobs.”

He said he wants to send a clear message to both state and federal officials that Cedar Rapids is willing to pay for part of the project.

“This is our flood protection project. We have to step up first, sending a strong message to state and federal government,” he said.
He said that it is a matter of moral conscious for the city to protect the west side from flooding, as well as it is a rationale business decision.

“What happens to the value of property if it can’t be protected? Is it likely to depreciate or appreciate?” Mr. Corbett said. “We all know the answer. Would you invest? This leads to a downward spiral of depreciation and decay. The core of our city deteriorates. The tax base in flood areas falls and gets shifted to you.”

For those reasons, the mayor said that it is important to the health of the community that Cedar Rapids continues to build a better city.

“It is my hope and prayer that we can stand together, building, with a little joy in our hearts,” he said.

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Samantha Kollasch currently serves as Chief Digital Officer at the Corridor Business Journal. After graduating from the University of Iowa with a BS in Management Information Systems....