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ConnectCR, African American Museum of Iowa projects seek state tourism grants
Enhance Iowa board will decide in coming months on grant funding
Two Cedar Rapids projects are vying for support through a state grant program that looks to drive tourism.
After having its initial $500,000 Community Attraction and Tourism grant rescinded and being encouraged to reapply, the city of Cedar Rapids is seeking $1 million for the approximately $12.3 million project to transform the lake just north of downtown as part of the grassroots ConnectCR initiative.
The African American Museum of Iowa also is requesting $508,000 to go toward a portion of its nearly $5 million renovation project, which has closed the museum while the city builds a floodgate on 12th Avenue.
The projects are among 34 asking for a share of $8.59 million remaining in the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s CAT fund, which had $12 million total in fiscal year 2023, which ends June 30.
The committee that reviews applications for CAT grants — a subcommittee of the IEDA’s Enhance Iowa board — did not immediately decide on recommendations Thursday. The 34 applicants have made pitches to the review committee and are collectively seeking $14.5 million, so the Enhance Iowa board will not be able to fully fund every project in this cycle.
In addition to Cedar Lake revitalization, ConnectCR also will include the construction of a pedestrian-bike bridge spanning the Cedar River to the south. The bridge was not the part of the project the city asked the Enhance Iowa board to fund.
City Council member Dale Todd, a longtime champion of ConnectCR, said the Cedar Lake revitalization project takes an old brownfield site and provides an opportunity to turn it into a destination tourism space where people of all ages and abilities can go in the heart of Cedar Rapids.
“The success of this project is going to revitalize our downtown and the neighborhoods that are adjacent,” Todd said.
With an $8.2 million private fundraising campaign, ConnectCR is the largest public-private partnership in city history.
City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said in his 12 years leading the city organization, he’d never seen a project as widely embraced by citizens, neighborhood associations, businesses and government entities.
“It has connected our community with a high degree of support,” Pomeranz said.
Cedar Lake’s transformation will add a boardwalk extending over the 120-acre lake and handicap-accessible piers. Project plans also call for preserving wetlands on the north shore, installing a fishing jetty, adding paddle sport launch locations, floating islands and a nature-based playground.
Those recreational elements won’t be ready until after 2023, which is why the city in December sought support specifically for shoreline and trail improvements. Parts of the project funded with the CAT grant had to be finished by the Dec. 31, 2023 deadline stipulated in the initial award.
Some board members indicated support for the whole project, but were less enticed by the request to help fund this component of it, so they advised Cedar Rapids reapply rather than amend the previous agreement from the $500,000 award in 2020. Board members indicated Cedar Rapids might be better positioned to receive more money by reapplying.
Cedar Rapids is working with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources on Cedar Lake improvements and with the Army Corps of Engineers on flood control work around the lake with the construction of a levee on the west side.
“It’s going to be a place where parents will be able to take your kids 10, 15, 20 years down the road, and you want to take part in that project,” Todd said.
Engineering and design work has been underway. The project is slated to be complete in 2025.
Todd said the project would have an estimated $17 million economic impact over time.
Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell said ConnectCR offers free, accessible recreation — providing space for more citizens to enjoy, and to attract workers to Iowa’s second-largest city.
“We've got to make sure that we have amenities for everybody,” O’Donnell said.
Board member Pat Diegnan, of Cedar Rapids, said this is typically a part of town “where trails go to die,” but this project makes them connect. He also noted this was the broadest involvement he’d ever seen for a massive community project.
“If this was a bond issue, it’d get 80 percent approval,” Diegnan said.
African American Museum of Iowa
LaNisha Cassell, African American Museum of Iowa executive director, said the renovation project looks to create a more community-facing facility with a sleek, contemporary design and landscape.
Plans include an improved facade, new entrance, expanded lobby, large windows and open floor plan. The project also will allow the museum to reinstall the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.-inspired “Trumpet” sculpture and garden.
“We look forward to seeing it come to life over the next several months,” Cassell said. “The success of this project is critical to the museum being able to walk out its mission.”
The city of Cedar Rapids contributed $1.378 million toward the project since the flood control work prompted the museum’s closure. Cassell said that helped galvanize further community support from Hall-Perrine, Linn County, UnityPoint Health Systems and other donors.
The state also recently awarded the project $800,000 in Destination Iowa funds — tourism dollars allocated using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.
So far, the museum has raised about $4 million toward the nearly $5 million project.
“We want to cross that finish line and get our project ready for the spring,” Cassell said.
She anticipated the museum will be reopened in time to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 15, 2024.
While the museum has been closed since last fall, Cassell said it’s maintained visibility by partnering with strategic locations across the state and creating a traveling version of its exhibit on systemic oppression in schools.
Next Thursday will be the CAT review committee’s first opportunity to make award recommendations to the Enhance Iowa board, which meets monthly and will decide awards at a later date.
Though it’s possible the panel could make some recommendations at its May meeting, review committee members indicated they will look to quickly get money out the door.
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