Meet Tyler Olson, candidate for at-large Cedar Rapids City Council seat
Name: Tyler Olson
Address: 314 Nassau St.
Seat seeking: At Large
Occupation: President, SiteGen Solar/CEO, Paulson Electric
Educational background: B.A. Claremont McKenna College; J.D. University of Iowa College of Law
Why are you running for council?
Olson: Cedar Rapids has made significant progress and it will take experienced, trusted, and forward-looking leadership to ensure it continues and everyone is included in the success.
I’m running for City Council at-large to apply my unique mix of private and public leadership and ability to get things done to capitalize on our opportunities and meet our challenges.
What are the three largest issues facing the city? How will you address them?
Olson: The City’s number one job should be to provide a strong base on which people can build their lives and job growth can flourish. This includes things like roads, stormwater protection, and permanent flood protection along the river.
How people experience our City, those that live here and those that don’t, is key to our success. I’m convinced that the cities thriving over the next few decades will be welcoming and inclusive, connected to their natural resources, provide spaces where people can build community, be entrepreneurial and innovative, and build the trust of and engage everyone that lives there. Cedar Rapids will grow with those values and jobs will follow.
Cedar Rapids needs to kick construction of our permanent flood protection into high gear. I served in the Iowa Legislature for eight years, securing hundreds of millions of dollars for flood recovery and protection. That effort succeeded by bringing diverse views and a strong dose of practical problem solving together. I’ll bring that same practical approach to identifying local funds to match the state and increase the pace of construction because it’s clear the federal government won’t provide near-term funding.
The city is facing some major revenue losses. The Iowa Supreme Court is considering whether to uphold a lower court decision to turn off traffic cameras on I-380, which have generated more than $3 million per year for the city. Now, the state is threatening to do away with the backfill, which in Cedar Rapids is worth about $4 million per year. What is your plan to balance the budget if those losses come to fruition?
Olson: Cedar Rapids’ financial strength and stability are real assets for the community. It leads to predictability in tax and regulatory policy, making it easier for residents and businesses in Cedar Rapids to plan for the future. Jobs are also attracted to financially stable communities. No matter the circumstances presented, the City Council is tasked with making tough decisions to prioritize spending within the budget.
My experience listening to constituents, turning that feedback into budget priorities, and making tough decisions balancing Iowa’s budget while I was in the Legislature means I’m ready to get this done the first day in office. Readiness to take on the budget is crucial because the new Council will take office and jump right into the budget process. There’s very little time to learn.
Communities should have flexibility and control over their financial destinies. City councils are closer to people than the state legislature. Despite this fact the state continues to take away control over day-to-day decision making. Current state law prescribes a one-size-fits-all model budget model for cities across the state. We should push the case with the Legislature that every city in Iowa is different and should be able to choose solutions that fit each situation.
Some big fish have expressed interest in opening shop in Iowa, including Amazon and Toyota and Apple recently announced plans to build in Waukee. What specifically would you do to put Cedar Rapids in the best position to land a major new company?
Olson: There are many factors that go into a decision by companies about where to locate. The same apply to businesses already here deciding how and where to grow. Cedar Rapids should focus on developing competitive advantages other communities can’t buy.
The financial strength and fiscal predictability of a city are very important for businesses as they plan future growth. Swings in tax policy and other fiscal uncertainty make it tough for businesses to add jobs. Cedar Rapids must continue to prioritize spending and make good budget decisions.
Communities with great people will thrive over the next few decades, and we have a big advantage here we need to continue to press. The region needs to show it is taking concrete steps to address challenges businesses face in matching the right person to the right position. That will take a long-term, concerted effort to make sure our community is one in which people that live here want to engage in lifelong learning and attracts others from around the world. The Cedar Rapids City Council needs to be a leader in the effort.
The City Council also needs to work closely with the Cedar Rapids and other area school boards, Kirkwood Community College, Coe College, Mount Mercy University, and other educational institutions to align strategy in creating a world-class education system. One of my former colleagues in the Legislature who did economic development in his private life shared with me a telling story from a site visit by the leader of company deciding where to locate a new facility. One of the few places he wanted to visit was an elementary school classroom.
The City Council also will have to make decisions about financial incentives, particularly in the case of a region-changing job creation opportunity. The decision is twofold: whether and at what level are incentives appropriate. The decision should be made on a case-by-case basis weighing wage level, jobs created, infrastructure investment, associated business relocation to the area, and many other factors. Accountability and enforcement also need to be clear and forceful. We should also start discussions about a regional model, as benefits from economic growth do not stop at municipal or county boundaries.
There’s very real possibility one of the area’s largest employers, Rockwell Collins, could see its HQ leave Cedar Rapids. This would lead to a negative impact on jobs and philanthropy to local nonprofits. What would you do as an elected official to prevent this from happening or to minimize the impact?
Olson: The first task in a situation like this is to organize a regional group to coordinate a response. Potentially negative impacts would touch every community in Linn County, and with a Rockwell facility in Coralville Johnson County, too. This is a perfect scenario for regional cooperation providing a more impactful response than an individual city could muster. It should be all hands on deck.
My belief at this point is that Rockwell’s decision comes down to people. It’s the same decision many businesses make every day when determining where to start and grow. The region needs to show it is taking concrete steps to address challenges businesses face in matching the right person to the right position. That will take a long-term, concerted effort to make sure our community is one in which people that live here want to engage in lifelong learning and attracts others from around the world. The Cedar Rapids City Council needs to be a leader in the effort.
One of residents top complaints in road conditions. Now we are a few years into a 10 year, 1 cent local-option sales tax targeting street repairs. It’s called Paving for Progress, and we’ve started to see streets improved, such as 42nd Street. What is your assessment of Paving for Progress? Is it working or isn’t it? And, do you favor extending the LOST tax to continue the program?
Olson: The City’s number one job should be to provide a strong base on which people can build their lives and job growth can flourish. Transportation is key to quality of life, from our roads to our mass transit system. We need to continue to catch up on road repairs and improvements. The prioritization and implementation process should go through consistent review to make sure the highest needs are met first and project implementation is as efficient as possible. The Council should make a decision on asking for a renewal of the program in Year 6 or 7. At that point community needs can be projected as the program winds down and a decision made to request public support to continue, modify, or end the program.
Another frequent complaint from residents is the city’s efforts to become more walkable and bikeable, notably building sidewalks in established neighborhoods and road work downtown which has included converting one way streets to two way streets, removing stop lights in favor of stop signs and adding bike lanes. Do you support these efforts and why? And would you do anything specifically to speed up or halt these initiatives?
Olson: How people experience our City, those that live here and those that don’t, is key to our success. I’m convinced that the cities thriving over the next few decades will be welcoming and inclusive, connected to their natural resources, provide spaces where people can build community, be entrepreneurial and innovative, and build the trust of and engage everyone that lives there. Cedar Rapids will grow with those values and jobs will follow.
Walkable and bikeable communities (along with public transportation) are more inclusive and welcoming than those that aren’t. We need to continue incorporating this infrastructure as we do road and other transportation projects. Efforts to slow traffic through neighborhoods along the river on both sides of the river help this goal, as well. Inclusion of these features in a specific road project should be determined on a case-by-case basis evaluating the positive and potentially negative impacts.
Cedar Rapids is some $200 million short of the money needed to build a flood protection system. Elected officials and city staff have tried a variety of methods to shake loose federal money for flood protection. They’ve lobbied local congressmen and senators, lobbied in Washington, D.C., worked with the Army Corps, and pushed unsuccessfully for a local sales tax increase for flood protection. What would you do differently to get federal aid for flood protection? What if any back up plan do you have to fill the funding gap?
Olson: Cedar Rapids needs to kick construction of our permanent flood protection into high gear now. I served in the Iowa Legislature for eight years, securing hundreds of millions of dollars for flood recovery and protection. That effort succeeded by bringing diverse views and a strong dose of practical problem solving together. I’ll bring that same practical approach to identifying local funds to match the state and get construction rolling because it’s clear the federal government won’t provide near-term funding. Permanent flood protection is a 20+-year construction project so we’ll continue to make the case at the federal level for participation, but their reluctance won’t stop us from protecting our City.
Last year and earlier this year, the City Council faced a difficult decision when Commonbond Communities wanted to build an affordable/homeless housing complex called Crestwood Ridge Apartments in a northwest neighborhood that vehemently opposed the project. While several neighbors pointed to concerns about traffic and stormwater runoff, others said that type of project would bring down property values and could introduce questionable people into the neighborhood. City Council members were torn about whether to side with the electorate or endorse a project many acknowledged was needed in the community. How would you have voted and why?
Olson: Affordable housing is a top tier issue for a welcoming community. Lack of quality housing options at multiple price points, particularly affordable housing, is a hurdle to making sure everyone is included and welcomed in our community. Cedar Rapids needs to prioritize affordable housing as redevelopment plans are made and act with urgency. There are practical issues that need to be addressed, as with any new development. Traffic, stormwater, and other infrastructure and planning issues need to be addressed to make the folks in the neighborhood aren’t adversely affected. Leadership is required to dispel the myths around surrounding housing that is labeled “affordable” and talk about the community value of a mix of housing that includes everyone.
Decisions about particular projects should be based on a number of factors including community need, infrastructure that works, matching the density of neighborhoods, and public input and made on a case-by-case basis.
Cedar Rapids has leaned heavily in recent years on Tax Increment Financing to incentivize development with programs for downtown development, job creation, restoring brownfields and grayfields, historic restoration, sustainable improvement, community benefit, and urban housing. Virtually every high profile development has included some form of public subsidy. As one example, the city is proposing a $20.5 million public subsidy for a 28 story, $103 million downtown high rise with a grocery store and hotel called One Park Place. Is this the right approach? Is it too generous? Please explain.
Olson: Cedar Rapids needs to compete locally, regionally, statewide and nationally for development. Long term I believe the best way to do that is with the people in our community. Jobs will continue to find communities with world-class infrastructure, people, and skills; they’ll also find communities that value and take concrete steps to support entrepreneurs and innovation. Other communities can’t buy those things through TIF or economic incentives, giving Cedar Rapids a huge competitive advantage if we develop them.
There are some projects that are key to Cedar Rapids’ goals of creating that competitive advantage that would not happen but for public investment. Those should scrutinized carefully and on a case-by-case basis to ensure need and effectiveness in achieving their goals, as well as return on investment. Agreements should contain accountability measures and the City should devote the resources necessary to enforce them. The City should also use the process to focus on increasing wages and high-quality jobs.
Following a series of shootings involving teens, a joint task force of city, school, police and community leaders joined forced to develop a plan called Safe Equitable and Thriving Communities. City staff and council have said they will work to implement the plan although some have questioned the level of commitment and progress and whether the city should bring in outside help. What do you think of the city’s progress on the SET program and what approaches would you advocate to address youth and gun violence?
Olson: The first goal should be to understand the major factors of gun violence in our community. No two communities are alike, and focusing on our particular challenges is important. Each individual incident of violence should be reviewed from various perspectives including law enforcement, county attorney’s office, corrections, and public health to make sure we have the most thorough understanding as possible. Community service organizations and faith-based groups should be included in that process, as well. Multi-perspective reviews of each incident build trust, increase communication, and help develop holistic solutions.
A public health approach can be helpful to understanding the causes of gun violence. Just like tracing the cause of an outbreak of a traditional public-health crisis, it is key to heading off gun and other violence in our community. Reviewing things like firearms arrests in conjunction with health and other data points can narrow the focus on those in our community most likely to be involved in violent incidents, focusing resources where they have the greatest impact. Broad, regional approaches play a role in understanding these incidents, as policies in neighboring communities affect what happens in Cedar Rapids.
Improving public spaces can also play a role in reducing violence. Dealing with vacant and problem homes and improving outdoor and street lighting has been shown to reduce incidents of violence in other communities.
We need to make sure law enforcement has the resources they need to pursue cases when an incident happens. This includes community trust, collaboration, technical, and personnel. Law enforcement, medical professionals, local advocates, community leaders, and academics can work together to focus on the people and places most likely to be affected. The SET program follows that model. Expanding positive alternative to youth with risk factors for violence and focusing on how we respond to domestic violence can have a positive influence, as well.
Are there any other issues you believe are critical for voters to know?
The City Council needs leaders that can engage the community and rally it behind an inclusive vision of progress. My unique mix of private and public sector leadership puts me in a position to jump right into the process. It’s also important our City Council executes on that vision. I’ve done just that in previous roles and would appreciate your vote to serve on the City Council.