Staff Columnist

First & First West is seeking its post-casino destiny in downtown Cedar Rapids

The site of a once proposed casino across the Cedar River from downtown Cedar Rapids between Interstate 380 and Second Ave SW and First and Third Streets. Shot on Monday, March 7, 2016. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
The site of a once proposed casino across the Cedar River from downtown Cedar Rapids between Interstate 380 and Second Ave SW and First and Third Streets. Shot on Monday, March 7, 2016. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Cedar Rapids leaders still are hoping for a “destination development” at First & First West, but the downtown site’s ultimate destiny remains uncertain.

First & First West was once slated to be the site of a Cedar Rapids casino, the columnist says in a lowered voice lest city leaders hear him. Now, it’s a big empty space seen as prime real estate in the city’s core near I-380.

Last year, the city put out a call for a “master developer” to help shape a vision for the site, but received just two bites. Indianapolis-based Flaherty & Collins Properties got the call.

Last week, city leaders who met with our editorial board said staff and members of a steering committee made up of local developers, property owners and others are working with Flaherty & Collins to determine possibilities for First & First West.

Maybe “Ampersands on the Cedar.” Just an idea.

Community Development Director Jennifer Pratt said Flaherty & Collins has tons of experience in the housing realm. The question at this point is what the firm can bring to the table with regard to the city’s hopes for a destination development, including entertainment or other amenities.

“If I work downtown, and I go home on a Friday, what would make me come back downtown to something?” Pratt said of the city’s desire for unique offerings with pulling power.

“We know it has to be a lot more than residential,” City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said. “We’re going to work with them to see whether they’re interested in the project as we preliminarily envisioned it. And then take it from there.

“They would build the housing tomorrow. But we want more than an apartment building,” he said.

The road from here can go a couple of ways. All this steering and talking can lead to a series of feasible development prospects for the property. Those proposals would then be forwarded to the City Council and on to a “public visioning process,” allowing local residents to weigh in on what they’d like to see.

“It’s going to be a public process no matter what they come up with.” Pomeranz said.

Or, Flaherty & Collins can’t match the city’s vision and leaders search for a new master developer. The process starts all over.

Ever since it became clear First & First West would not become a gambling hall, I’ve heard from plenty of readers with grand ideas for the land. Water parks and museums and Cheesecake Factories. What is it with the Cheesecake Factory cravings around here?

But what we’re going to get will come from what the city calls “a spectrum of feasible possibilities the market can support.”

“Feasible” is the key word. Sure, a Ferrari would be great, but a Subaru Outback may be more feasible. A whole cheesecake is great, but wouldn’t a reasonably portioned slice be more feasible?

And that’s OK. Reality is OK. We’ve seen what happens when a development is sold as a marvelous showcase only to watch those big dreams transformed by truck-rental, self-storage realities. Retail lemons have been made into lemonade at Westdale. But, in the beginning, we were sold champagne.

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Instead, First & First West can be “Fun & Feasible on the Cedar.” Feel free to use that.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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