Cedar Rapids developer takes step on Nash Finch site

Hunter Companies' proposal includes multi-building devolopment

The former distribution center of Nash Finch at 1201 Blairs Ferry Rd. NE in Cedar Rapids is seen in this photo taken on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. (Justin Wan/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The former distribution center of Nash Finch at 1201 Blairs Ferry Rd. NE in Cedar Rapids is seen in this photo taken on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. (Justin Wan/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Phone lines are open at Hunter Companies if Smulekoff’s Furniture Co. wants to call.

“With the tradition that they have, we would be happy to talk to them,” Greg Swartzendruber, director of development for Cedar Rapids developer/builder Hunter Companies, said on Monday.

Hunter Companies is taking a new step on an ambitious commercial redevelopment project. The company has an agreement to purchase 23 acres of property in the 1100 and 1200 blocks of Blairs Ferry Road NE. That area is currently the site of the primarily vacant Nash Finch grocery warehouse and distribution center and of an active cement distribution center owned by Northwestern States Portland cement Co.

Hunter Companies’ proposal would demolish the existing buildings and replace them with a multi-building development it is calling Northtowne Market Development.

The company envisions that the development could include a mix of retail stores, offices, financial institutions, a fitness center, an auto dealership and more, Swartzendruber said.

“All of those things are something we’ve had a discussion with a company about,” he said.

A furniture store would fit right in, he said, but added that he has not talked to Smulekoff’s. That business is selling its downtown store as part of the city’s flood-recovery buyout program and will close the store at year’s end, the city said Monday.

In June 2013, Hunter Companies said it was looking to buy the 19-acre Nash Finch property, which closed the year before, and intended to turn it into a $16-million to $20-million mixed-use retail center. The company had made initial inquires to the city about economic development incentives for the project, Mayor Ron Corbett said back then.

On Thursday, some 14 months later, Hunter Companies will appear in front of the City Planning Commission as it seeks to change both the Nash Finch property and the cement distribution center property next to it from an industrial zone to a planned-unit development zone classification. The zone change requires the submittal of a conceptual master site plan, and Hunter Companies has submitted one to the city that shows 11 different one-story buildings on the 23-acre site.

The master plan also calls for a new traffic signal at the entrance to the site, directly across Blairs Ferry Road NE from the SuperTarget store.

Swartzendruber said Hunter Companies has signed an agreement to purchase the property, but an actual purchase won’t take place until Hunter Companies makes it through the city’s zoning and regulatory process and until Hunter Companies determines what kind of financial support it may receive from the city.

He said the company hoped to have all the city approvals by the end of the year. He did not expect any demolition on the site this calendar year, he said.

Swartzendruber said he recalled the Nash Finch distribution center in its robust years as place that provided a lot of local jobs and a lot of economic activity.

“It’s very odd to look at it now, and you think of how big it is and how many people it used to employ, and now it’s been vacant and sitting and not employing anybody,” he said. “And if we can turn that around, (demolishing) it and rebuilding something that is going to have jobs on that site again, that’s what we’re all for.”

City Council member Scott Olson, a commercial Realtor, said on Monday that the Nash Finch site had “tremendous redevelopment potential that would really add to what’s happening out there in the Blairs Ferry Road corridor.”

The cost to demolish what is on the site makes any redevelopment proposal a challenge, Olson said. But he said he surmised that Hunter Companies has figured out a way to make the project work.

“It’s taking a site that was underutilized and more of an industrial use, and making it a commercial use, which is more in keeping with the Blairs Ferry Road we have,” Olson said. “It should add to the tax base and should add a lot of opportunities for additional retailers to come into the market.”

Swartzendruber said the Blairs Ferry NE location across from the SuperTarget store comes with high traffic counts and a lot of existing retail stores and Rockwell Collins, Cedar Rapids’ largest employer, nearby.

“It will be nice to move from something that is a bit of an eyesore currently to something that can be vibrant and part of the retail fabric of that area,” he said.

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