by Tim Kenyon

CEDAR RAPIDS – Proximity will be a prime advantage for downtown businesses when the new Cedar Rapids Regional Commerce Center and planned events center open for business.

U.S. Department of Commerce leaders officially announced the award of $38 million in Economic Development Administration funds to Cedar Rapids for the two projects on April 26.

A few days before, U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack said the money would be coming to help revitalize downtown as part of the June 2008 recovery.

The events center involves a $67 million project to enhance customer amenities at the U.S. Cellular Center and add convention center meeting space. Federal funds account for $35 million, the state will provide $15 million and the city needs to fund $17 million.

The EDA is providing $3 million toward the $6 million commerce center to be built on the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce building site at 424 First Ave. NE.

Curt Nelson, president of the Entrepreneurial Development Center, a future tenant of the commerce center, said business people will find it easier to locate and access help at the new building. The events center will also be a magnet and driver for downtown activities.

“Those are excellent things. Any money we get that can be applied to new high-profile projects in the community, especially downtown Cedar Rapids, that is a great thing,” Mr. Nelson said. “Clearly, the benefit is when someone in the community goes somewhere to seek help, they’ll go down the hall instead of an additional trip to another building. The likelihood is increased that organizations will have more opportunities to work closely together when they meet in the hall on their way to go to lunch or get a drink of water.”

That and crucial incubator space for businesses will lead to better client resourcing and communication, he said.

Al Beach, Kirkwood Small Business Development Center director, sees the incubator idea as a welcomed business sector addition.

“Incubators are great because they provide tangible and intangible aid to start-ups (or to existing businesses trying to reinvent themselves). First, the availability of reduced rent for prime office space is never more helpful than in the early stages because new ventures are primarily operating on OPM (other people’s money),” Mr. Beach said. “Secondly, the education entrepreneurs receive just by having coffee with other entrepreneurs who have faced similar developmental issues is priceless.  Informal roundtable discussions – coupled with mentor counseling – greatly increase the odds that incubator-dwellers will get through their first critical months successfully.”

Brian McGowan, a deputy assistant Secretary of Commerce, said the size of the events center project led to the EDA’s extensive review process of one year.

“It was so large and it was more complicated because of the engineering and architectural work that will be needed,” Mr. McGowan said.

The new convention meeting space will be attached to the existing arena’s south end and then wrap around behind the Roosevelt Hotel and parking ramp. Third Street NE will be closed off and a lobby is planned next to the parking ramp and in front of the convention space next to the arena.

“It was a top priority in the regional EDA office in Denver and we’re all pleased it happened and can go forward,” Mr. McGowan added.  
John Frew resigned as Gov. Chet Culver’s chief of staff so he could lead his Phoenix’s company’s management of the events center project. The city council approved hiring Frew Nations on April 20.

The project is estimated to be a 30-month process, said Chris Nation, Mr. Frew’s partner.

Chamber President Shannon Meyer said her organization will use the expertise of members in the commercial real estate business and other resources to find temporary offices while the commerce building is constructed.

It will require about 14 to 16 months of demolition and construction.

The chamber must still secure $1.8 million, Ms. Meyer said. Grants through the state Office of Energy Independence, national foundations and local public relations surrounding the project will continue to create private funding investment as ways to gather that amount, she said.

A request for proposals for architects will go out within about a week, she added.

“We’ll continue on a dual track. The architects will be working on design at the same time we’re preparing a move for temporary space while waiting for demolition,” she said.

The chamber’s economic arm, Priority One, will be on the move, too.

The new commerce center is planned at about 31,000 square feet overall; 17,000 will be used for incubator space and common areas, the other 14,000 square feet will be used for chamber, Priority One and EDC offices.

“Board members are extremely positive and excited. We are very fortunate we’ve had real strong community leaders, and, with the state delegation, we have strong supporters and we couldn’t have been successful without all of that support and from that of state and local levels, too,” Ms. Meyer said. “We’re extremely grateful for that collaboration.”

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