CEDAR RAPIDS — Connie Petersen plans to make the most of her time as the honorary Cedar Rapids mayor for the day on Saturday.
The 61-year-old Cedar Rapids woman won the Gavel Challenge, a contest created by Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett to stimulate business activity after the 2016 flood. She set a goal to support 22 flood-affected businesses, exceeding Corbett’s challenge to visit businesses 10 times in October.
“Never in a million years did I think I’d be doing so many things,” Petersen said. “I was just blown away. Wow.”
On Saturday, she’ll cut the ceremonial ribbon for a new Jared the Galleria of Jewelry location at Lindale Mall at 10 a.m., attend a 1 p.m. ribbon cutting ceremony for phase one of the Highway 100 extension, light the city Christmas tree at Greene Square around 5 p.m., and then serve as grand marshall, riding in a 1970s gold Mercedes-Benz, for the annual Fire & Ice Festival Holiday DeLight Parade at 6 p.m.
A little too much to pack into one day, Petersen is to culminate her tenure by gaveling in the Cedar Rapids City Council meeting at noon on Tuesday at City Hall. She can’t take any official actions.
Corbett’s idea was for members of the community to help businesses — many that lost a week of revenue due to September’s flood — get back on their feet. Residents could enter the contest by posting a picture at the business on Facebook or Twitter using “#CRGavelChallenge.”
Corbett said they had about 500 official entries from social media, but many more participated without logging in.
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The contest was successful for a few reasons, Corbett said. People really embraced the social media aspect, which helped create a viral effect; they made it fun with a unique prize of being mayor for a day; and third, people experience with the 2008 flood was a motivating factor to get out and support effected businesses, Corbett said.
“I talked to so many of the businesses, and they saw a tremendous response from the citizens,” Corbett said. “Not everyone was posting on Facebook and Twitter, but a lot of people were participating.”
Summer Hagy, Petersen’s daughter, had entered the contest through Twitter on her mother’s behalf. Hagy’s name was selected in a random drawing, but she was able to transfer the honor to Petersen.
Hagy, and Petersen’s husband Mark, plan to join Petersen for some of her duties.
Petersen has only lived in Cedar Rapids for three years, having moved from Center Point, but she already feels a special connection. She has worked for 39 years at Rockwell Collins, serving as a test technician. She spends her free time bike riding and attending basketball games coached by her son Sam Elgin, who is the sophomore coach at Xavier High School.
For the past 25 years, she has volunteered as a Salvation Army bell ringer, and she raises money with her co-workers for an annual Christmas Party at Tanager Place.
Perhaps the biggest reason why Petersen has wanted to give back to Cedar Rapids is that after the flood of 2008 destroyed her father and stepmother’s home, friends and family helped tear the house down to studs and rebuild. As the 2016 flood approached, friends, family and complete strangers aided in packing up and then putting everything back a few days later.
“It was quite amazing, pretty emotional what we went through in that time and seeing everyone who came out to help,” Petersen said. “So when I saw Mayor Corbett talk about the challenge, it just touched me. I thought, ‘Wow, I could do this’ ”
Petersen set out to visit as many shops in flood-affected areas as she could. And, she didn’t just spend her money, but took the opportunity to meet and learn about the people behind the places she went. She had many of them sign a gavel as a memento of her experience.
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“I met so many amazing people,” Petersen said. “I talked to people about my experience ... the flood was a common denominator.”