The Gazette Editorial Board
The first thing that strikes you are the windows.
In the lobby atrium of the Cedar Rapids Convention Complex and U.S. Cellular Center arena, the windows stretch three stories high, including a three-sided glass “lantern” feature that juts out from the building. In the 350 First Restaurant at the top of the totally refurbished Double Tree Hotel, the windows surround you in a panorama 16 stories high. And, of course, every guest room has a large window, perhaps upstaging the new 42-inch flat-screen TVs. The arena, which once had about as much natural light as a bunker, now has its own large windows along one side.
Filling the frames beyond all that glass is Cedar Rapids. The Cedar River stretching off into the distance. Quaker Oats and other examples of the city’s agricultural and industrial brawn. Downtown’s collection of buildings, new, historic and in between. Mount Trashmore, looking more and more green, less and less trashy. Churches and neighborhoods and businesses. From the “lantern,’ you can look straight down Third Street all the way to the thriving New Bohemia neighborhood.
Visitors who come to the convention complex or the arena or the hotel will get an eyeful of Cedar Rapids. It’s unavoidable. And it’s probably a more interesting and diverse view than some of them figured they’d see. It’s going to make more than a few of them curious, hopefully curious enough to step out and experience the community up close.
So in opening a new convention complex, and reopening an arena and hotel, Cedar Rapids is really opening a window and inviting thousands of people from near and far to take a look. The possibilities and opportunities presented by that open window are the reason our elected leaders embarked on this project, why we supported it, and why we hope the community on the other side of the glass comes to view the complex as an important asset.
“Certainly, I think the convention center complex is going to have a big impact on our community,” said Mayor Ron Corbett during an interview in May.
“We were really, from a competitive standpoint, behind Dubuque, we were behind Davenport, certainly well behind Des Moines in offering a convention facility, offering concerts, an entertainment venue for our residents. There had been multiple ownerships of the hotel where they just kind of bled the property dry and didn’t put any reinvestment in,” Corbett said.
“I think it sends a nice statement to our community that we want to be a vibrant and lively town. Nobody wants to live in a drab, boring town. They want to have some life in a town. And I think that complex is helping, along with other investments that we made, create that life and vibrancy.’
We were uneasy with the speed by which this project was approved. The city’s purchase of the hotel was an understandable and necessary move, but is also a risk. The growing cost of the complex and hotel remodel increased the size of that risk, with
$41 million in city funds sunk into the hotel and $32 million spent on the $85 million convention center.
City officials insist that those increases were necessary to recreate the U.S. Cellular Center in a way that would make it more attractive for concerts, sporting events and other shows, to expand the footprint of the convention complex and to upgrade the hotel to standards demanded by its Hilton management. Since then, they contend, the projects have remained on budget.
The city’s decision to put the complex in Hilton’s experienced hands and to continue its relationship with VenuWorks as the U.S. Cellular Center’s booking firm have raised our confidence in the success of the project.
“So for the first time ever, Cedar Rapids has the full package. Before, we couldn’t compete,” said Marilee Fowler, director of the Cedar Rapids Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “So finally, we’re in the game. We’re the new kid on the block. We’ve got all the bells and whistles.”
Although the entire complex, in its fresh, polished newness, is impressive, the transformation of the U.S. Cellular Center is truly striking. The dim concourses, inadequate concessions, orange seats and cramped loading area are gone, replaced by a thoroughly modern arena with wide concourses, large concessions and the sort of “bones” — dressing rooms, lights, sound, rigging and other infrastructure — that are attractive to promoters and artists.
“All those things add up to putting a new shine on the apple. And making Cedar Rapids a much more attractive place that the artists want to route into,” said Gene Felling, executive director of the U.S. Cellular Center.
“Lady Antebellum wouldn’t normally play this market, but with our increased capacity, we were able to secure them for our opening,” Felling said. The arena’s “festival” concert capacity has increased to 9,000 seats, with a reserved capacity of 7,700.
“It’s fantastic. They’ve obviously done things the right way. Very, very impressive,’ said Mike Dick, executive director of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, which will be bringing its state volleyball tournament back to the arena after a temporary stint at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena. Dick and other IGHSAU officials recently toured the upgraded facility.
“We’re excited to get back into the real thing,” Dick said.
There will be a lot of talk this weekend and beyond about what the complex has and will cost Cedar Rapids. There will be concerns, justifiable for the most part, about its prospects for generating enough revenue to cover operations and pay off construction-related debts. Will business at the complex generate business activity outside its walls? We’ll be closely watching those issues as well.
But as these facilities open, it’s also worth thinking about less tangible but still important profits. And that’s what this community and region stand to gain from thousands of people coming to town to share their wisdom, passions, issues and innovations with one another in the heart of this city, along with the artists, athletes and entertainers who will perform, the visitors who may stay and explore our hometowns. How might that infusion of new perspectives and talents change this community? Who knows?
But let’s open our windows for them, and for us, and see what happens.
Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org or (319) 398-8262
l Land acquisition, Convention Center construction, arena renovation: $84.5 million
l Land acquisition, hotel renovation: $44.4 million
l Parking garage: $15 million
l Construction, Roosevelt fire escape stairway: $1.3 million
l Total cost: $145.2 million
Convention Center, arena
l Federal EDA grant: $35 million
l State I-JOBS grant: $15 million
l The Hall-Perrine Foundation:$2.5 million
l City funds: $32 million
l Insurance settlement, Sinclair Fire: $3 million
l City funds: $41.4 million
l City funds: $15 million
TOTAL CITY FUNDS
l $88.4 million
*Some figures still estimates
l Source: City of Cedar Rapids