CEDAR RAPIDS — The city is not planning to establish a free-standing tourism bureau, Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart said Wednesday during his annual State of the City address.
The office is responsible for booking events that generate $4.2 million in direct spending from visitors, booking 5,484 hotel room nights and securing a number of large-scale business conferences and sports events, according to Hart.
“Frankly, the tourism office is doing such a remarkable job with VenuWorks helping with that,” Hart said. The city pays VenuWorks $6,000 per month to manage the tourism office.
“We have more groups coming to Cedar Rapids than ever before. They are really fired up,” he said. ”And so I don’t think there’s an interest in rocking the boat right now. I think whatever the best practices are, we’re doing it because people are coming from all over the country to Cedar Rapids because of their work.”
The city-run tourism office — formed in October 2018 after GO Cedar Rapids produced a failed music and culture event called “newbo evolve” and folded — is exceeding expectations, Hart said. The office had been pitched as a placeholder while tourism leaders examined best practices and formed a new independent bureau to replace GO Cedar Rapids.
The city pays $750,000 per year into the tourism office, which has a $1.7 million budget proposed for fiscal 2021.
Here are other take-aways from Hart’s annual speech:
• Transit: Student ridership on public transit is up from 88,675 to 129,660 — a 46 percent increase — since the launch of a sponsored free-fare initiative for students and staff at the beginning of the academic year. The city is participating with the Cedar Rapids Community School District, Kirkwood Community College and Coe College so students can ride free year-round.
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“This helps remove barriers many students had experienced, and allows them to participate in school activities and after-school employment,” Hart said. “This program has had an enormous impact on so many students and their families.”
• Streets: Expiration of a voter-approved, local-option sales tax to pay for street repairs is looming.
Paving for Progress has allowed the city to spend about $18 million a year over the past six years on maintenance, repair and reconstruction of streets amounting to 58 miles of upgrades, including 69 percent in residential areas, Hart said. The program is “data-driven and impartial” to keep politics out of planning, he said.
The program began in 2014 and ends in 2024, “unless extended by voters,” Hart said.
• First and First West: Hart called redevelopment of 8 acres of downtown land once reserved for a casino his top infrastructure goal of 2020.
The city needs to “make sure we get the right development on that site,” he said. “It’s such a visible location and there’s so much going on over there already. This needs to complement the investment that’s already being made and continues to be made in that part of the city.”
Applications for repurposing the vacant, city-owned site with “destination-style amenities that create a new attraction” are due this week and the City Council will consider the proposals by April, he said.
• Tough votes: Hart reflected on difficult decisions as mayor.
“There have been, and will be, difficult decisions to make, but I’ve learned to trust our decisions, knowing we put in the time and effort to make the right ones, and understanding that even then some people won’t be happy or satisfied,” he said.
Allowing Cargill to build a rail yard in the Rompot neighborhood in the face of vocal resistance was a recent example. After his speech, Hart said that other decisions also in mind were enforcing zoning rules on a wildlife rehabilator operating out of her home and a handful of rezoning cases.
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• Automated traffic cameras: Rather than suggesting traffic cameras are highly popular, which caused backlash after last year’s speech, Hart took a different approach this time, saying simply they are working.
The automated traffic camera program resumed in July after legal challenges leading to a surge of tickets in the initial months. The number of violations has steadily decreased, a sign people are learning to slow down, he said.
“They are working,” he said. “Thank you for slowing down.”
• Downtown ambassadors: A program launched last fall to curb rowdy behavior and promote rules on smoking, drinking and littering in downtown Cedar Rapids will be continued in 2020. The focus has been on Greene Square, the library and the Ground Transportation Center.
• Helmets: Cedar Rapids is bringing back and expanding its electric bike and electric scooter rental program, which saw about 30,000 rides and 5,200 users in its first year. The program is run through a third-party vendor called VeoRide at no cost to the city.
Hart urged people to “wear a helmet when you ride”; however, helmets are not provided or offered when renting the devices and this is not a requirement in the city’s contract with VeoRide.
• Social equity: A new “Social Equity Impact Assessment” is being used by city staff to examine the impact existing or future procedures and programs have on underserved populations, and will help departments understand how programs and decisions can either perpetuate or prevent discrimination, Hart said. The program played a role in the library’s decision to end its late-return fee policy, he said.
• Municipal volunteer program: Cedar Rapids has launched an initiative to boost participation in programs and services, such as the city’s 31 boards or commissions, caretaking at parks or coaching youth sports.
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