Government

Controversial I-JOBS leaves its mark in Cedar Rapids

Democratic governor's program brought hope - and debt

Former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver greets Cedar Rapids City Council member Ashley Vanorny as City Manager Jeff Pomeranz looks on Wednesday before a dedication ceremony in the Time Check neighborhood of Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver greets Cedar Rapids City Council member Ashley Vanorny as City Manager Jeff Pomeranz looks on Wednesday before a dedication ceremony in the Time Check neighborhood of Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The New Bohemia District may be the best example of the fruits of a controversial 2009-10 spending plan called I-JOBS, which remains politically divisive today.

CSPS Hall, a musical cornerstone in NewBo, received $4.8 million in I-JOBS funds, which fueled a $6.4 million post-flood rebuild with modern heating and air conditioning, a proper elevator to replace the single-chair lift mounted on the stairs and new bathrooms. Its renovation was a flag in the ground that the area was coming back, some said.

“It was the first indication NewBo was going to become NewBo,” said Pat Baird, the former head of Transamerica and vice president of the I-JOBS board, which oversaw distribution of $165 million in grants earmarked for disaster rebuilding and prevention.

It showed people “it’s not going to go away, not going to be demolished. It is going to come back, and it has really taken off. I think that is what Gov. (Chet) Culver had in mind with (I-JOBS), to revitalize a community that was devastated by the flood, and I think NewBo still is the best example.”

As Cedar Rapids marks the 10-year anniversary of the 2008 flood, local leaders recall the important role I-JOBS played to help the city get off its knees and rebuild, even as some still criticize the large debt I-JOBS created.

The governor saw a “a tremendous need and the state needed to step in because much of the progress wouldn’t have occurred to the level it has without the I-JOBS dollars,” said Jeff Pomeranz, now the Cedar Rapids city manager who at the time chaired the I-JOBS board while serving as city manager in West Des Moines.

Democrat Culver — dealing with catastrophic flooding and tornadoes around the state and an economic collapse — introduced the $875 million spending plan to boost the economy and create jobs through spending on transportation, broadband and housing, along with flood recovery and mitigation from future flooding.

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The program allocated $660 million for 2,204 projects in all 99 counties and leveraged another $1 billion in local, federal and other state aid before being shut down when Republican Gov. Terry Branstad took office in 2011.

Linn County and Johnson County, areas hit hardest, received 42 percent of the money.

Linn County received $116.6 million for 54 projects, including $10 million for the National Czech and Slovak Museum, $5 million for the Paramount Theatre, $5 million for the Cedar Rapids Public Library, $10 million for the Human Services Campus and $6.6 million for the Cedar Rapids Fire Department Central Station and West Side Fire Station.

Linn County received $4.4 million to assist in renovating the Jean Oxley Linn County Public Service Center, $3.69 million toward the $3.7 million Juvenile Justice Center and about $5 million toward the $14.6 million Linn County Community Services/Options of Linn County building.

Pomeranz credited the governor and Legislature for working quickly and working together to get the plan passed, as well as the Iowa Finance Authority for administrating the program.

“Getting dollars passed is always a political process, but I didn’t feel any politics in the decision-making,” he said. “We did it the right way and did it based on the need.”

Baird added, “Our directive was to make it impactful and make it as fast you can, and if you can do that you can bring hope back to some of these communities that really were devastated. I’ll never forget the smells. I’ll never forget the piles of people’s lives out on the streets.”

The board consisted of six public members: Pomeranz, Baird, former University of Iowa President Willard “Sandy” Boyd, Joni Dittmer, Kate Gronstal and Toi Sullivan. Five state officials also served: State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, Director of Rebuild Iowa Lt. Gen. Ron Dardis, Director of Iowa Workforce Development Elisabeth Buck, Director of the Iowa Department of Economic Development Michael Tramontina and Iowa Finance Authority Director Bret Mills.

The board traveled the state to explain the program and invite applications for competitive grants. It was during his many visits to Cedar Rapids that Pomeranz really got to know the community, which in turn warmed both city leaders and Pomeranz to each other when the city manager position came open, he said. Pomeranz, with urging from several in Cedar Rapids, applied and got the job in 2010.

He said he began abstaining from allocation votes when he began considering the position.

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“I don’t think Jeff would have just taken the job if he didn’t have the exposure to the magnitude of what we has taking over firsthand,” said former Mayor Ron Corbett, who hired Pomeranz in September 2010. “I think he saw the grit of the community and also likes a challenge.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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