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The greatest opportunity for downtown Cedar Rapids right now, Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell said, is “it’s a blank slate.”
Similar to right after the 2008 flood, she said, “I feel like we’re in that moment right now.”
She cited the influx of post-derecho and pandemic funding as well as the shift toward hybrid working practices, saying “we have a real opportunity to re-imagine what our downtown is.”
O’Donnell’s comments came during a business panel presented by The Gazette Tuesday on the future of downtown Cedar Rapids.
The panel highlighted the importance of connectivity between Cedar Rapids and surrounding neighborhoods — Czech Village, NewBo District, Time Check and Kingston Village — a community-first mindset and investing in downtown businesses and housing.
Darryl High, High Properties president and chairman of the Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District, noted discussions were underway among the neighborhoods and some kind of “connective vehicle’’ — such as a trolley — would be in future plans.
After two and a half years of grappling with the pandemic, one of the short term challenges that O’Donnell believes the city could address is support for the homeless population that can be seen gathering in Greene Square in early mornings and later in the day.
“Green Square park remains such a refuge for us in the city,“ O’Donnell said. ”I don't think any one of us here in Cedar Rapids would be proud of the position we're putting some of our most vulnerable citizens in.“
The downtown and its greenway will look very different over the next 10 to 20 years, she added, due to a city master plan that’s in the works.
Jesse Thoeming, Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance’s downtown executive director, said that one key factor that will help the downtown area in the long term is the $750 million permanent flood control system it has in the works.
Events such as flooding and derechos “are going to become more frequent, more ferocious, and to have a flood control system that's not only going to protect all the investment and resources and time and toil that people went through in the post flood years … that's a really big deal,” Thoeming said.
“You know the service providers like pharmacy and grocery and (other often-cited amenities), they usually won't come until the people are there,” High said. “So we're going to have to focus our efforts on getting more people here every day, whether they live here or work here.”
Andy Schumacher, co-owner of Cobble Hill and Caucho restaurants, located downtown and in NewBo respectively, said it’s also important that part of drawing people to the downtown area is also investing in affordable housing.
“My hope to is that we are creating affordable living for people who are … just starting out,” Schumacher said.
Thoeming Cedar Rapids’ future could be similar to cities that are home what he called “digital nomads” — people who work from employers based elsewhere but the employees live and work in the Cedar Rapids metro area.
All four panelists endorsed the concept for the $250 million, 160,000 square-foot Cedar Crossing entertainment and casino complex across the Cedar River from downtown, at the site of where Cooper’s Mill hotel.
But, O’Donnell added, “It is one piece of the (city’s) economic puzzle.”
Though Iowa lawmakers in May passed a two-year statewide moratorium on new license casinos licenses, the panel was positive one still could be built in Cedar Rapids.
“We’ll get it done,” High said.
The panel can be viewed on The Gazette’s website at https://www.thegazette.com/special-events/the-gazette-business-breakfast-series-june-2022/.
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