Brownfield redevelopment paying off in Cedar Rapids

City investment in blighted areas slowly but surely seeing results

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CEDAR RAPIDS — If they say imagining it is the easy part, don’t believe them.

Groundbreaking for Geonetric Inc.’s new $5.5 million, three-story office building is slated for this summer at a spot at 415 12th Ave. SE in the emerging New Bohemia arts and entertainment district south of downtown.

Eric Engelmann, president/CEO of Geonetric Inc., says the creative vibe of New Bohemia suits his growing 70-employee-strong firm — which builds websites for hospitals across the country — better than the northeast Cedar Rapids office park where the company now leases space.

“New Bohemia is really an up-and-coming place in Cedar Rapids, and we feel it just fits our culture really well,” Engelmann says.

In fact, sufficiently large is the buzz that it is easy to ignore what has come before to make Geonetric’s building site available — not to mention the nearby site of the popular new NewBo City Market.

Industrial relics

Less than 20 years ago, the spot where Geonetric is building was home to the shuttered Iowa Steel plant, across the street from another industrial relic, the Iowa Iron Works plant.

The sprawling Sinclair meatpacking plant was moving to a last use as a warehouse with some leased business space next door to Iowa Steel, and Quality Chef Foods was moving from its spot next to the Iowa Iron Works.

It was a cluster of properties that had the makings of an industrial wasteland for decades to come.

But Lee Clancey saw something different.

Clancey, who served as mayor from 1996 through 2001, says it became apparent during her six years in office that no one was going to invest in the area that now has come to be known as New Bohemia with old, unused industrial buildings nearby.

“I mean, who wanted to spend a lot of money and put a nice, new something in the New Bo area and have to look at these buildings that were kind of falling down and were a mess?” she said.

At the same time, Clancey says she was part of a task force on abandoned industrial “brownfield” properties as a member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Through the task force, she learned about federal funds to assist cities to clean up brownfield areas.

“I put those two together, and it just seemed to make sense that we would go ahead and try to not only acquire them, but find the resources to take them down in hopes that one day there would be something like a Geonetric,” Clancey says. “... That it would get redeveloped for the purposes of the economics of the community. ... It will bring more people into that area to use the restaurants and shops and everything else.”

Development funds

According to dollar figures provided by the city’s Department of Community Development, the city secured a total of $6.1 million from a variety of outside sources to help to acquire, clean up and ready for redevelopment five properties in the New Bohemia district — the former Iowa Steel plant, 415 12th Ave. SE; the former Iowa Iron Works plant, 400 12th Ave. SE; the former Sinclair meatpacking plant, 1600 Third St. SE; the former RESCAR site, 1800 10th St. SE; and the former Quality Chef Foods plant, 1100 block of Third Street SE.

From 1999 through 2005, the city received five grants totaling $950,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and $2.06 million in five grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and urban Development from 1999 through 2009. In addition, the Iowa Department of Economic Development awarded the city a $1.07 million brownfield grant in 2000, and the city also received a $25,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and a $2 million grant from the Hall-Perrine Foundation of Cedar Rapids to help purchase the Sinclair site.

Joe O’Hern, the city’s executive administrator of development services, points out that it not atypical for older communities to have “leftover” industrial areas as companies close or move, as communities evolve and as time passes. Expecting to reuse them as they had been once used isn’t usually an option, he adds.

“So you do have to have kind of vision or will to say, ‘We can open up these site for productive reuse,’” O’Hern says. “We don’t maybe know today exactly what might go on that site, but we know, if we have confidence, that if we open the site up we can draw investment into the area.”

Jennifer Pratt, a planner in the city’s Department of Community Development, joined the city in 1998 at the time that the city began to actively focus on cleaning up the industrial areas in what would become New Bohemia and seeking federal grants to help out. The city purchased the Iowa Steel and Iowa Iron Works sites, demolished the buildings and secured brownfield funds to conduct environment assessments and cleanups of the sites.

Pratt says the public perception, often incorrect, is that an old industrial site is likely to be an environmental nightmare. However, the environmental assessments allowed the city to identify any “actual” problems, remedy them and prepare the sites for sale and redevelopment.

“They’re never easy,” says O’Hern. “It costs some money. We did have to spend some money on cleaning up those sites. But the public has the perception that any site that is contaminated is a ‘Superfund’ site. And that certainly wasn’t the case here.”

However, without the public-sector redevelopment work, private companies likely would not look to invest, he adds.

“So we were able to make redevelopment a lot more feasible by being able to spend some these (federal and state) grant dollars to bear some of the costs,” O’Hern says. “... There certainly is a role for the public sector to make that happen.”

Risks of redevelopment

The city’s Pratt says “without a crystal ball” it is hard to know if a brownfield transformation initiative like the one in New Bohemia would work.

“But I think we absolutely saw this desire for a creative district. We’ve seen it happen in a lot of other cities, where you get an interest in an older part of town. So it did seem possible,” she says.

O’Hern says Cedar Rapids has had the luxury of being a growing city with an economy that is diversified and relatively strong. That has allowed the city to focus on old brownfield areas in the core of the city rather than to turn its back on them. He and Pratt point to other brownfield success stories — Mount Mercy University’s plan to redevelop a portion of the former Terex industrial site on 17th Street NE and Raining Rose’s redevelopment of the former Allis-Chalmers industrial site on 30th Street SE.

Geonetric’s Engelmann says he’s seen the photographs of the former Iowa Steel plant, which is now gone and making way his company’s new headquarters, and of the Iowa Iron Works plant across the street.

“I have a hard time really picturing what that was like standing there,” he says. “As a business owner in the community and a citizen of Cedar Rapids, to have a private business like Geonetric take a lot that otherwise would be forlorn brownfield and turn it into a clean office space environment I think is a big step for the community and for Geonetric.”

The Iowa Iron Works site remains available for redevelopment, as does the Sinclair site, some of which is slated to become a levee for the city’s flood protection system. The former Quality Chef Foods site is now home to the non-profit NewBo City Market.

Of course, the sprawling Sinclair site, which the city purchased in 2007 with the insistence of City Council member Justin Shields and the help of a $2 million grant from the Hall-Perrine Foundation, oddly benefitted from the 2008 flood and the demolition funding — the amount is still in dispute — that came to the city from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Brownfield transformations, says O’Hern, often take a long time, a fact that critics of such public investment can come to ignore.

“There is a tendency to say, ‘Well, you make the investment and nothing happened in 12 months and it was wrong. And this (the Geonetric investment) is a good example of some effort over a number of years, and we can now see the value of it,” he says.

Even so, former Mayor Clancey says the 15 or so years it took seems like a long time to her.

“I’m an impatient person, and I like to see progress,” Clancey says. She points to the new federal courthouse, which opened in November 2012 and which she and others had lobbied to get built for more than a decade.

“The federal courthouse taking as long as it did just drove me nuts,” she says.

“But I get it,” she continues. “You have to find the resources. You have to find the right fit. You have to find the community will to do those kinds of things. And when you take all of those as a package, sometimes one piece doesn’t come along as fast as others.”

Imagining what can be is the easy part, she says.

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