Business

United Fire Group's downtown expansion taking shape

UFG on First project to be complete in fall 2018

CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids’s original skyscraper is taking shape as new space for homegrown insurance company United Fire Group.

Contractors have gutted the inside of the American Building downtown as they prepare for its new look, part of a multimillion-dollar expansion project that also will see a brand-new building rise on First Avenue. United Fire recently gave The Gazette a tour of the building.

While much of the outside remains as it was, crews have taken the building’s interior down to the bare bones, exposing clay tiles on the ceiling. Scaffolding stairs have replaced the former elevator.

When opened to the elements, the western side presents a view clear across the Cedar River — one that the new addition’s large windows should let employees enjoy.

United Fire purchased the 103-year-old American Building, 101 Second Street SE, in December 2013. At the time, United Fire CEO Randy Ramlo called the $1.96 million purchase a “defensive” move in terms of its commercial space downtown.

The company announced the expansion in June 2015.

The UFG on First project will combine a conversion of the American Building with an adjacent 10-story building newly constructed along First Avenue SE. It will add 110,000-square-feet of new office space, bringing United Fire’s campus to more than 400,000 square feet.

Converted basement space will make way for 50 new parking stalls, joining 240 the company has in an aboveground parking garage.

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The company also has proposed a rooftop patio and a private skywalk connection as part of its construction plans.

United Fire currently has 555 of its 1,136 employees downtown, a spokeswoman said in an email. It will be the only occupant of the new space.

The American Building

The project is expected to cost about $28.4 million, according to an Iowa Economic Development Authority report. The state agency awarded the company more than $1.9 million in tax credits and refunds in June 2015.

The city of Cedar Rapids also provided $2.6 million in incentives, state records show. In exchange, the company is required to create 50 jobs.

The final interior of United Fire’s expansion still is in the works, but the company has some ideas. For example, the black granite and gold that line the outside of the American Building’s first floor likely will be removed.

Renderings show a large UFG symbol will adorn the new addition along First Avenue, but that also is just a proposal, company officials said.

United Fire expects the entire UFG on First project to be complete by fall 2018.

The insurance company, which moved to downtown in the early 1960s, slowly but surely has extended its presence there. It now owns all the property on the southern block of Second Street SE between First Avenue SE and Second Avenue SE, previously home to a number of retail and department stores.

“This is the first time that UFG is building their own signature office space structure in Cedar Rapids. Everything else they have done there are acquired buildings,” said Mark Stoffer Hunter, historian with the History Center.

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The American Building was once the home for American Trust & Savings Bank. When the building was finished in 1914, it was the city’s first skyscraper and “a crowning achievement for Cedar Rapids,” Stoffer Hunter said.

Even though the American Building’s 10-story structure is now dwarfed by taller high-rises around downtown — the CRST Center is 11 stories, for example — Stoffer Hunter said the building will still stand out because of its white terra cotta exterior, ornamental moldings, large window openings and its spot along a main thoroughfare.

The building originally was intended to accommodate an addition, a plan that wasn’t followed through on until United Fire’s construction, Stoffer Hunter said.

“The building was actually designed on the back-end so somebody someday could build something right next to it. That’s exactly what United Fire Group is doing today,” he said.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct side of First Avenue for the UFG on First project.

l Comments: (319) 398-8366; matthew.patane@thegazette.com

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