Post-flood Cedar Rapids taking shape with numerous projects

Some projects getting started while some near completion

Renovations are in progress on the former Crowne Plaza Hotel and new convention center along First Avenue in downtown Ce
Renovations are in progress on the former Crowne Plaza Hotel and new convention center along First Avenue in downtown Cedar Rapids. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

But for American presidents who win re-election, almost no one else fusses much over four-year anniversaries.

In fact, Monica Vernon is looking right past June 13 — the day during Cedar Rapids’ historic 2008 flood when the Cedar River reached it crest — to the year ahead, one she and friends are calling, “The Grand Reopening of Cedar Rapids.”

“Whether it’s steel rising or (additions) on old buildings or spruced up marquees ... ,” says City Council member Vernon, the council’s mayor pro tempore. “I think the feeling in the city has changed because people can see those cranes in the air and they can actually see things happening.”

The next 12 to 15 months will see a rapid-fire series of openings of public and key community buildings and facilities not unlike a giant store that closes for a transformation and then reopens in a gush of celebration, says Vernon.

Just last Monday, city government returned to downtown, taking up home in the renovated former federal courthouse with the new marquee “City Hall” monument signs out front.

This Monday, Linn County’s government starts its return to its renovated and expanded administration building, the Jean Oxley Linn County Public Service Center, on First Street SW.

Other upcoming milestones are the openings later this year of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library and new federal courthouse and next year’s debut of the new downtown library and the city’s renovated arena and hotel and its new convention center.

“I think for a city that was whacked so hard — and you go through this period where there is a lot of disarray and a lot of unknowns,” Vernon says. “But now there are so many things that are known, and people will be able in the next year to go in and experience for themselves and touch and see and smell and (use) all the senses that say to people, ‘This is real. This is really happening.’ And I think that’s what the next year is going to be — it’s going to be a time of seeing the reality of the future.”

Gail Naughton, president/CEO of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, moved into the relocated, renovated and expanded facility in recent days as she and her staff ready for their grand opening on July 14.

Naughton says the four years since the 2008 flood both have flashed by and have been the longest years of her life. What is in place now is “a new museum basically,” almost three times the size, with plenty of parking and on high, safe ground and still in Czech Village, she says.

“All of those things would have been unimaginable (before the flood),” she says.

Naughton says some in Cedar Rapids might downplay the value of the museum’s return to the community, but she tells the story of the cabdriver in Prague in the Czech Republic, who upon hearing that his customer was from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, declared, “Isn’t that where the national museum is at?”

“It does make a difference for the prestige of the community, for the recognition of the community as one that has significant arts and cultural venues,” she says.

One of the best lasting memories of the city’s flood recovery came when Naughton and her board of directors decided to pick up the flood-damaged museum perched along the river, spin it and move it across the street to a new site on elevated ground.

“It’s such a visible sign of all of the creative solutions to flood recovery that are happening in this community,” she says. “We like to think (ours) is a very visible building that shows that the city is coming back, that we can recover, we can be better and stronger than we were even before the flood.”

If there is excitement at the four-year mark of the flood, there is some frustration, too, says Doug Elliott, president of the Cedar Rapids library board. Getting around parts of Cedar Rapids these days couldn’t be more trying, he says. That’s so true around the hotel, Convention Complex, the federal courthouse, the Central Fire Station site and the city’s Medical District just off downtown.

“But it’s a good thing because it means there must be a lot going on,” adds Elliott.

The steel infrastructure of the city’s new downtown library, a $46 million project, is now up across from Greene Square Park, the block wide city park which sits between the new library and the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. Elliott says he hopes people working and visiting downtown take a minute and do a 360-degree spin in Greene Square Park to imagine what the spot is becoming with the museum and the library as bookends to it.

“I hope they see progress and I hope they see the future,” Elliott says. As for the library, “I hope they can project how this is going to be an iconic structure and how they’re going to be able to take their children there and attend events there,” he says.

At the four-year mark of the 2008 flood, many of the city’s leaders at the time of the flood and in the initial stages of flood recovery are no longer in place.

City Manager Jim Prosser, who played a central role in the city’s handling of the flood emergency and in the first two years of flood recovery, left City Hall in April 2010 as part of an agreement with a City Council that had three new members including Mayor Ron Corbett.

Others no longer where they had been in 2008 are Mayor Kay Halloran, who chose not to seek re-election in 2009, and Brian Fagan, the council’s mayor pro tempore and one of the more visible faces of early flood recovery who was defeated by Corbett in the 2009 mayoral race.

Greg Eyerly, who was the city’s utilities operations manager at the time of the flood and who became the city’s first flood recovery director in July 2009, left for a job in the private sector in February 2011.

Lee Clancey, who had announced her retirement as president/CEO of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce just before the flood, left in the months after it, and Dan Baldwin, president/CEO of the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, left in December 2009 for a similar post in Monterey County, Calif.

Cedar Rapids’ fire chief retired in early 2010 and the city’s police chief left earlier this year for a chief’s job in Ocala, Fla.

Only four members of the current nine-member City Council were in place at the time of the flood: Vernon, Kris Gulick, Pat Shey and Justin Shields.

Vernon says she really hadn’t given it much thought that many of the initial key players in the city’s flood emergency and flood recovery are no longer in leadership positions in the city.

“It hasn’t felt like there have been a lot of gaps,” she says. She notes that much of the city’s professional staff at the time of the flood remains in place and she credits the early work at City Hall on flood recovery with laying out a clear strategy — flooded residents first, small businesses next, then city buildings with work on flood protection accompanying it all.

“Yeah, some key faces have changed,” Vernon says, but she adds, flood recovery has continued on schedule. “I think that’s a testimonial to having a plan and working the plan,” she says.

Fagan, an attorney with Simmons Perrine Moyer Bergman, continues to keep his fingers in flood-recovery matters as president of the board of the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street organization. He says those two historic, riverfront commercial neighborhoods have made great progress since the 2008 flood through a mix of investment from the private, public and non-profit sectors.

“It’s really phenomenal to see how it’s popped over the last four years,” Fagan says of Czech Village and New Bohemia. “There’s still work to be done and still questions unanswered.” The latter includes flood protection and the future of property the city now has acquired through the flood-recovery buyout process.

Four years from a flood like Cedar Rapids’, he says, isn’t enough time to forget if you were on the front lines of the flood emergency and flood recovery and especially if you were a victim of the flood.

“I don’t think you can ever get away from it,” he says.

He gives the city’s current flood-recovery effort good marks, saying the city is meeting certain timelines and thresholds that were established soon after the flood. Among the successes, he adds, has been the city’s ability to secure significant federal and state disaster aid, which the city had no inkling it would accomplish in the first months after the flood.

“Certainly, we were positioning and advocating for that because we did appreciate the magnitude of the disaster,” Fagan says. “We did appreciate what it would cost to recover because we were here, we witnessed it. And that was the reason we were able to advocate for that and tell compelling stories about what was needed and why it was needed and how it would be used effectively and efficiently.”

City and community officials have called the 2008 flood a disaster with $5 billion or more in costs.

One piece of the disaster tally, which was compiled by City Hall at the end of May, has reached $638.3 million in federal and state disaster funding that has come or is obligated to come into the city for property buyouts, demolitions and renovations, for new residential construction, for business assistance and for the repair or replacement of public buildings and facilities.

Many of the compelling stories that Fagan talks about seem to have been heard in Washington, D.C., and Des Moines.

Even so, Gary Ficken, who led the post-flood Cedar Rapids Small Business Recovery Group, says businesses still are reminded four years after the flood that government moves slower than businesses.

“The good news is that money is still going out to flooded businesses; the bad news is that it’s four years after the event,” says Ficken, president of Bimm Ridder Sportswear. Even so, he puts the survival rate among flood-hit businesses, which include his own, at some 80 percent, what he calls an “amazing” rate compared to other communities recovering from disasters.

Ficken — who led the citizen campaign that put the city’s local-option sales tax in place for 63 months for flood recovery in early 2009 and who also helped lead the unsuccessful campaign earlier this year to extend the tax for flood protection — says one sobering truth still remains at the four-year mark of the flood: “The city will never reach full recovery without protection,” he says.

“In the flooded area, it makes a lot more business sense to redevelop in a protected area as opposed to an unprotected area,” he says. “So I think there will be nervous days ahead, and when you have a spring where the river rises high ... I think protecting yourself is a necessary measure.”

Nonetheless, Mayor Ron Corbett says the city has had some victories for flood protection, and his notes that Army Corps of Engineers has endorsed a system to protect most of the east side of the Cedar River; Quaker Co. has built additional protection for its plant, and the city has disaster funds to raise that protection to the level of the 2008 flood; and the state of Iowa has passed new legislation that provides state funds for flood protection to communities who come up with matching local dollars.

“These are big steps,” the mayor says.

Even if a fourth anniversary of an event isn’t typically considered all that special, Cedar Rapids Fire Chief Mark English is going to get as much from the day as he can.

At 10:15 a.m. on Wednesday — the exact moment when the Cedar River crested in 2008 — English, the Fire Department and city officials will break ground on the city’s new Central Fire Station between First and Second avenues SE and Seventh and Eighth streets SE.

The commemoration will serve as a reminder of the Fire Department’s response to the flood, a disaster in which no one died.“Probably the thing we are most proud of as a city and as a Fire Department is that there was not loss of life,” Chief English says. “As big a disaster as that was and as many possibilities that there were to lose people, and we didn’t.”   

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