RESTAURANTS

New owner brings new hope for revitalization at First Avenue McDonald's in Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids police, council member like what they see so far

A driver Friday turns into the McDonald’s at 1530 First Ave. NE in Cedar Rapids. The restaurant is a linchpin in efforts to revitalize the business strip. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
A driver Friday turns into the McDonald’s at 1530 First Ave. NE in Cedar Rapids. The restaurant is a linchpin in efforts to revitalize the business strip. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — McDonald’s on First Avenue NE grew a reputation over the years as a place some people didn’t feel comfortable because of loitering, fights, drug incidents and other problems over the years.

But some community and neighborhood leaders are hopeful of change under new ownership with a record of running successful franchises.

Kevin O’Brien knew when he expanded into Cedar Rapids and Marion with the purchase of five McDonald’s locations that he had work ahead of him to update the properties, which could see investments of $500,000 to $1 million.

The location on First Avenue presented a different set of challenges. Not only did he want to clean it up, but also shift perceptions among staff and patrons alike.

“We want to let people know we have a different mentality about what we do with our restaurants and our reputation,” said O’Brien, an owner-operator of the O’Brien Family McDonald’s Organization, which has 23 properties.

The McDonald’s property is a longtime institution of the area situated between two lower-income neighborhoods — Wellington Heights and Mound View. The area as a whole has faced challenges with crime, blight and little investment — but it recently has been showing signs of life with two multimillion-dollar mixed-use developments going up on opposite sides of the street.

While the KFC restaurant on First Avenue closed, the Wendy’s across the street doubled down and reinvested in its property. The Hy-Vee grocery store adjacent to McDonald’s also is undergoing a remodeling, and Coe College enrollment is holding strong.

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The hope is that this McDonald’s location can be part of the stabilization and revitalization going on at the busy commercial strip.

“When we rebuilt the Hy-Vee store in 2001, our goal then was to stabilize the area” between Hy-Vee and Coe, Cedar Rapids City Council member Dale Todd said. “It simply never happened.

“But today you see a resurgence, and the revitalization of the McDonald’s location has been one of the key missing ingredients in the renewal of the district.”

Todd had seen the conditions of the McDonald’s deteriorate and feared it may close. Todd is more optimistic now.

The new ownership has upgraded air-conditioning, power scrubbed the inside, repaired outside lights, trimmed trees, repainted the parking lot and, perhaps most important, returning staff got raises, a 401(k) and paid time off.

The idea is that more invested employees can be the starting point for a new attitude and loyalty to the property, said O’Brien, who also has attempted to make inroads with police, community leaders such as Todd and neighborhood leaders such as executives at Coe College and Hy-Vee.

“It’s been a hangout, and people would think twice about coming here. We want to be a place where a business person can come in and work or a family can come in,” O’Brien said.

The goal is to see a significant change in operations and customer perceptions in 90 days, which customer surveys can document. With more than 30 years in the family business, which his mother began building in 1958 with a McDonald’s on Riverside Drive in Iowa City, O’Brien said he believes the restaurant can succeed. But he acknowledged he could move on if it does not.

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“Over the next several months to a year, we plan to evaluate if the location still is viable or if we need to do something else,” O’Brien said. “We know pretty quickly what levers to pull to make a restaurant sing.”

In the past year alone, the location has had 109 police calls, according to police data.

While some calls were for innocuous reasons not related to a crime, Lt. Anthony Robinson said drugs, domestic violence, suspicious people, weapons, theft and harassment dot the police log. Robinson noted the volume of calls is not necessarily a lot compared with other businesses in the area, but agreed a new commitment from ownership could make a difference.

“I am very encouraged,” Robinson said. “You have a proactive owner who wants to get on top of these things. If you don’t, it can get worse. You can set a tone for an establishment so people know how far they can go. Word spreads — this is not a place we can just hangout.”

Robinson added that, “They really want to be part of the district. They want to be more than just a business here. They want more involvement.”

Coe President David McInally said the location is a prime opportunity, with Coe and MedQuarter right there, the density of the neighborhoods and the traffic volumes on First Avenue. He wants to see a successful business strip.

Not only does the vibrancy benefit his campus, he noted, but the city as a whole.

“McDonald’s is just one more thing that will cause people to stop by, but they have to feel safe,” McInally said. “People will stop if it feels clean and attractive, and we are seeing a lot of that happening.”

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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