CEDAR RAPIDS — “Life comes in chunks” is how Monica Vernon put it as she prepared to bid the City Council farewell after an eight-year run so she can focus full-time on a next life chapter, trying to win a seat in the U.S. Congress.
On Tuesday afternoon, Vernon was honored at a City Hall reception immediately before the last council meeting of the year and the last meeting of her two-term council career.
“Eight years on the council could never be enough time serving Cedar Rapids,” said Vernon, 58, who has been the council’s mayor pro tem the last six years. “I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. I love my city.”
Vernon said she has worked with other council members, community leaders and citizens of every political persuasion to accomplish one goal — “to make Cedar Rapids a better place, bring in jobs, and to keep the city relevant and exciting.”
“If you keep your eye on that, you can go across a lot of barriers,” she said.
Vernon joined the council in January 2008, six months before the city’s historic flood, an event that the city continues to recover from as it now is starting to build a flood protection system to prevent a similar disaster.
With the flood, Vernon said the council learned quickly that it needed to handle many tasks at once, with the first one being to help those directly impacted by the flood.
“Nothing is perfect,” she said, but added the council and the community have “accomplished a lot” in flood recovery.
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“I never wanted to celebrate, because when you work with all these people who lost everything, it’s hard to celebrate,” she said. “But we commemorate each year in their name and for just the spunkiness of Cedar Rapids.”
Some in the community imagined a flood recovery that would leave the city just as it had been, but she said the City Council and community leaders decided they wanted more.
“I think we have come back better than ever, and I think we owe it to everybody who ever lived here or who will ever live here that you try to be the best you can be,” Vernon said.
She said the council has made plenty of “bold moves” in the city’s years of flood recovery, none any more illustrative than the council’s decision to back the plan to transform the empty, flood-damaged, former Quality Chef building in the heart of New Bohemia into today’s NewBo City Market.
“Look at the NewBo City Market area today,” Vernon said. “We took an old soup factory, which the city owned … There was no beacon of hope or beacon of something down there that was interesting. And look at all the private development around it today. That was the hope.”
Vernon has been the chairwoman on the council’s Development Committee for the last five years, and in that position, she has been the leading voice at City Hall to insist that the city adopt design expectations so what gets built is more, not less, visually appealing.
“Some people say we don’t need that,” Vernon said. “But I think the opposite is so true. Paying attention to what our buildings look like and what things look like makes a difference in this town.
“When people decide if they’re going to locate a business here or if they are going to live here, they need something to inspire them. It doesn’t have to be over-the-top fancy or expensive. I’m saying thoughtfulness.”
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Mayor Ron Corbett said Vernon has played a “critical role” in the redevelopment of the city after the 2008 flood.
“I have worked with Monica for over 25 years at the Chamber of Commerce, on the City Council and in electoral politics,” Corbett said. “She has a way of combining passion and brains to get things done.”
Council member Scott Olson used the word “passion,” too, saying that Vernon has made the city better by improving building design and backing quality of life opportunities in the city.
Vernon said the city’s “mammoth” flood convinced her she could run for Congress.
“If I could be a leader in our $9 billion flood disaster, then I know I can make a dent in the disaster we call the U.S. House,” she said.
Congress, she said, needs to be more like the Cedar Rapids council and the Cedar Rapids community and find a way to work together to get the job done.
“I’ve always tried to keep my ears open for another idea or somebody else’s viewpoint,” Vernon said. “And you learn from that. A lot of times that’s where the real spark is or the real nugget is.”