Is the local economy booming?
Scott Olson, the local commercial Realtor who was narrowly defeated in the mayoral race in 2005, had the littlest of public dust-ups with City Manager Jim Prosser back in March at the public hearing on the city’s annual budget.
Olson was one of a couple people to come to the City Council microphone that night in March to comment on the city’s annual budget.
He first praised the council for its willingness to assume an increased level of debt to raise money to take care of needed infrastructure repairs and downtown revitalization. What’s the sense of having the top bond rating if the city “is falling apart?” he asked.
Olson then went on to say the lack of growth and vitality in city’s commercial sector was “an embarrassment.” He said the city’s hard-to-navigate regulatory system made developing and building new projects in Cedar Rapids difficult. And he recommended streamlining the system, which, in fact, the city’s Community Development Department and the local development community now are working to do.
To that, City Manager Jim Prosser took a bit of an exception.
In part, Prosser said some of the value lost in the commercial sector came because a number of property owners had successfully appealed and had their valuations lowered. Prosser’s point: There was still growth in the commercial sector.
Prosser and Olson also disagree over a number.
In any event, the city’s document over which Olson and Prosser were debating showed that the value of commercial property in the entirety of Cedar Rapids had declined by 1 percent for the year. Data from the Linn County Auditor’s Office shows as much.
That was weeks ago.
In the last several days, the city has mailed out its periodic newsletter, and on page 8, City Hall took space to make a case for the robustness of the local economy.
It was something of a reminder of Mayor Paul Pate’s mayoral term, from 2002 through 2005, when Pate, a small businessman and a sparkplug for the private sector, routinely brought out data on new-home starts and building permits.
The most recent “Your City Newsletter” puts it this way:
“Construction activity was strong in Cedar Rapids in Fiscal Year 2007 and continues strong in Fiscal Year 2008, according to a comparison of the number of building permits and valuation with other major Iowa communities. Construction activity means Cedar Rapids is continuing to grow and both residents and businesses are investing in their properties and/or new properties, helping to ensure a vital and healthy community.
“For the first two-thirds of Fiscal Year 2008, the City has issued twice as many building permits as the City of Des Moines and the value of those projects is about $18 million more than Des Moines’ total building permit projects.
“Cedar Rapids building permits include additions, new construction, remodels, and repairs. The permits also include both residential and commercial buildings. …”
Then on Friday, Scott Olson came out with his periodic “Memo” to Mayor Kay Halloran and the City Council.
The Memo offers some of Olson’s insights from his Skogman Commercial Real Estate Services Group’ office, 122 Third St. SE, and it includes his updated “Commercial Market Overview.”
It’s fair to note that his look is of the metro area, not just Cedar Rapids.
“In general,” Olson says, “we are doing just fine in all categories except retail.” He reports he is headed to a convention in Las Vegas next week to study retail trends and to talk to retailers and mall owners.
He continues: “The Des Moines metro area continues to lead the state in construction activity …” He points to the construction of Aviva USA headquarters in suburban Des Moines, saying it is just one of several large-scale projects underway in the Des Moines area.
“Each project is exceeding our total annual volume in commercial construction,” he says.
Olson – He’s also an architect: He’s the “O” in OPN Architects Inc. though he left the firm for real estate years ago — talks of a recent trip to Chicago, where he toured the new 92-story Trump Tower. He learned that 62 construction cranes were now up in the downtown Chicago landscape. He says Cedar Rapids needed to find a way to make Cedar Rapids’ city bird become the “tower crane.”
In his market overview, Olson reports that available retail space in the metro area has increased 10 percent in the last six months, which makes for a “weak” economic sector, he says. He says one “bright spot” is a 12 percent decrease in available office space. Another is continued interest in development land in the city’s industrial zone in southwest Cedar Rapids, he says.