RAGBRAI returns to an Iowa City in transition

City's second overnight stop in RAGBRAI history

People walk over the bricks on the Pedestrian Mall in Iowa City on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. Iowa City sent out a survey asking if residents would be interested in buying the Ped Mall bricks that they're tearing up this summer. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
People walk over the bricks on the Pedestrian Mall in Iowa City on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. Iowa City sent out a survey asking if residents would be interested in buying the Ped Mall bricks that they're tearing up this summer. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Iowa had a Republican governor and president. The summer anthem was “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee; “All The President’s Men” with Dustin Hoffman Robert Redford was a new release.

The Hawkeye football team was in a historic slump, posting a 3-8 record the previous season in what would ultimately be a 19-year winning season drought. The men’s basketball team, still in the Field House, were middle of the pack in the Big Ten, which still had 10 teams.

Iowa City was under construction.

The year was 1976, the last time Iowa City was an overnight stop on the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Iowans will roll into a town on the verge of major changes, just like they did 42 years ago.

Iowa City embarked on major urban renewal projects in the 1960s and 70s, similar in many ways to the building boom happening around downtown right now. The Ped Mall and Old Capitol Town Center which now anchor downtown Iowa City were not yet built. Downtown streets were torn up and buildings demolished in the mid 1970s to make way for the new.

Just a month before RAGBRAI 1976 came to town, the iconic Old Capitol building on the University of Iowa campus reopened to the public following extensive historical restorations. It’s the same year the first edition of the local history collection “Irving Weber’s Iowa City” was published, eventually becoming an eight-volume set.

That was before I was born, about a decade before my dad graduated from UI.

The 1975 City Council elections marked a significant turning point in the city’s history. Voters elected a brand-new seven-member council under the new city charter overwhelmingly approved in the prior election.

And just like today, local politics in Iowa’s liberal enclave were sometimes tumultuous and divisive. The urban renewal campaign drew criticism that the government was unfairly favoring certain business interests.

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The city faced legal action from critics alleging the city’s “single-developer concept” flouted competitive bidding requirements, ultimately forcing them to open the process to more developers. The Gazette reported in August 1976 city leaders were frustrated at the pace of construction downtown.

“It makes me sick to think it will be three years before we have buildings occupied in the urban renewal project. … Unless this new way works out, we’re dead,” council member Robert Vevera said, according to Gazette Iowa City correspondent Ford Clark’s report.

More than four decades later, our skyline is growing even taller and the city is investing millions in another downtown face-lift. Work is expected to start later this year on a major Ped Mall overhaul.

RAGBRAI riders made overnight stops in neighboring towns a few times since 1976, including North Liberty in 2008, and Coralville in 2011 and 2015.

Iowa City leaders, several of whom attended the RAGBRAI route announcement party last week, are eager to show off our town’s fresh face to thousands of visitors this summer.

Welcome back, Iowa.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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