Business

Core districts are 'heart' of Iowa cities, deserving of focus

Gazette business panel discusses importance of downtown revitalization

Robin Bostrom (center), business specialist at Main Street Iowa, and Phil Wasta, MedQuarter executive director, speak with attendees at The Gazette Business Breakfast at the Geonetric Building in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, June 20, 2019. Panelists discussed how cities are revitalizing their respective downtowns and what problems they still face when re-energizing core areas and neighborhoods. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Robin Bostrom (center), business specialist at Main Street Iowa, and Phil Wasta, MedQuarter executive director, speak with attendees at The Gazette Business Breakfast at the Geonetric Building in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, June 20, 2019. Panelists discussed how cities are revitalizing their respective downtowns and what problems they still face when re-energizing core areas and neighborhoods. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Officials in communities both urban and rural, in and outside Iowa, face pressure to keep multiple plates spinning, including housing, shopping, restaurants and recreation.

And making those opportunities available in those cities’ core districts, and accessible to residents of various economic backgrounds, is pivotal for the communities’ health.

Four panelists discussed strategies for cities in building or nurturing core districts at the second of this year’s Gazette Business Breakfasts, held Thursday morning at the Geonetric building in the New Bohemia District.

In the context of cities as “living, breathing beings,” core districts are the “heart,” said panelist Rick Dickinson, president and CEO of the Greater Dubuque Development Corp.

And like hearts, core districts “grow tired and they need assistance, and if ignored, the being is diminished — not just that neighborhood, but you sort of rot from the middle out,” said Dickinson.

He added that Dubuque underwent riverfront and main street development over the years to keep its core healthy.

Panelist Scott Olson, a Cedar Rapids City Council member and Realtor with Skogman Commercial, said investment in core districts has been a trend nationwide and “sends the signal” that the communities in question are ideal places where businesses or workers can move.

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“Even though a lot of the public doesn’t like it when all these announcements come out about downtown because they’re thinking, ‘Why are you spending money redeveloping the downtown core when we have potholes in our streets?’ ... We need more people here to pay more taxes, so we don’t have to raise taxes and we have the funds with which to make those improvements,” he said.

The panelists agreed on a need to retain amenities such as affordable housing for all city residents so as to avoid gentrification, as well as on the value of outreach, such as knocking on doors within the community to determine what services are needed.

“We really recommend that our communities focus about 80 percent of their time and effort on business retention and expansion and 20 percent on dangling the carrot for the new guy,” said panelist Robin Bostrom, business specialist with Main Street Iowa, citing factors such as cost and the lack of a “silver bullet” for attracting new employers.

“Not only are we looking for the working urban professional but that there’s diversity in those — diversity in the workforce and diversity of opportunities that would attract them in the first place,” added Panelist Phil Wasta, executive director of Cedar Rapids’ MedQuarter Regional Medical District.

The New Bohemian Innovation Collaborative, or NewBoCo, was a community partner with The Gazette in the Business Breakfast.

The third Gazette breakfast of the year, on companies building and promoting workplace culture, is set for Sept. 12.

• Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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