Keys on Third program brings music and spirit to downtown Cedar Rapids

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids Downtown is alive with the sound of music.

Eight pianos are scattered down Third Street from First Avenue to 12th Avenue as a part of the Keys on Third program, a program that places used pianos outdoors for free public use.

The program started with three pianos located in downtown Cedar Rapids in 2013. The current pianos span downtown and into the NewBo districts.

The goal of the pianos, each painted by a local artist, is to increase pedestrian traffic along the street and “to get people to embrace a sense of place,” said Casey Prince, executive director of Theatre Cedar Rapids, which has two pianos at its location on Third Street and First Avenue.

Matt Oster, a Kirkwood student studying computer software development, is one Cedar Rapids resident who takes advantage of the program. He spends time a couple days a week playing the pianos on Third Street — particularly at the piano in front of Zins — in the hopes of making a little extra cash for his classes and gas for his car.

Oster, 21, said he taught himself how to play piano and guitar, and decided to spend some of his days performing. He said something about the smiles it brings to passersby continues to bring him back.

“My parents encouraged me to get out there and be proactive and share my talent,” Oster said. “So that’s what I’m doing.”

Scott Kruger, executive director of NewBo City Market at 1100 Third St. SE, said he’s seen people play the piano at the market.

“I think it’s something that’s interactive and allows people to enjoy the space that they’re in and share talent or experience something,” Kruger said.

Prince said getting residents interested in music is a perk, but the program’s biggest goal was to tap into the entrepreneur spirit of downtown.

“It’s all leading us where we’re embracing our core districts in town and not feeling a lack of immediate parking is an obstruction,” Prince said. “If the stroll to and from our building is more enjoyable, that helps us.”

The pianos were inspiration from a study conducted by the Urban Land Grant Institute following the Floods of 2008 to help the city boost itself following the natural disaster.

According to the report, “the ULI approach in Cedar Rapids was to provide a focused, strategic look at a specific portion of the city: the area in and around the U.S. Cellular Center in downtown.”

Dough Neumann, interim president and chief executive officer of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, said the study — released in 2009 — recommended the city focus its revitalization efforts in one area, which the alliance selected as Third Street.

“The urban land institutes did not talk specifically about pianos, but they said we had to hit a ‘wow’ factor,” Neumann said.

The Arts, Culture and Entertainment Committee formed shortly after the release of the study included several business owners and operators along Third Street. Prince, who spearheaded the committee in its early days, said pianos were decided on as a downtown feature three years ago.

West Music, with locations in Marion and Coralville, joined the program. Kirk Davis, director of the piano division at Coralville West Music, said the store transports and stores the instruments and collects used pianos each year for the program. Once the summer months are over, the pianos are recycled or thrown away.

“We’re happy to be involved in the process of getting pianos in areas people can walk up and enjoy the music,” he said. “It brings the art to us together in a new way.”

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