Mayoral candidate Ron Corbett on Thursday morning stood outside the empty, flood-damaged Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall and called on city government to repair the building and return to it.
In so doing, Corbett said the city would honor the veterans for whom the building stands as a memorial and it would put local workers back to work.
Nearly 100 labor union members and veterans stood to listen to Corbett speak, but surprisingly, no one from the local electronic media was on hand to record the event.
Turns out, the Linn County Board of Supervisors had summoned the media to the flood-damaged federal courthouse just down the street, a building that the supervisors have their eyes on for the possible future location of the county’s juvenile court operation.
In any event, Corbett had props, TV cameras or no TV cameras.
He held up one of the familiar “We’re Back” signs that have gone outside many buildings that were damaged by the June 2008 flood and are now open and back to life. Only Corbett’s sign had a circle with a line through it, signifying that the Veterans Memorial Building is not back on its feet. He then ripped the circle off so the sign said, “We’re Back.”
“This is why we need a new game plan for Cedar Rapids, a game plan that shows leadership and says, “We’re back.”
Just 10 days ago, Corbett –- vice president at trucking firm CRST and former president/CEO of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and former speak of the Iowa House of Representatives -– attracted every media outlet when he formally kicked off his campaign for mayor.
He spoke without nearly all of them on Thursday.
In his remarks, Corbett took exception with the City Council’s plans for a six-to-nine month study focused on the prospect of building a new government building to house city government and perhaps “co-locate” other jurisdiction’s offices in the new building or at the same site.
“Does the city really want to build a new Taj Mahal dedicated to government?” Corbett asked. “The least expensive plan is to rebuild and move many of the functions of city government back into the Veterans Memorial Building.”
Of course, what most know as City Hall is the Veterans Memorial Building, which was built in the 1920s to honor veterans even as it became home to City Hall.
Corbett said placing City Hall on an island in the middle of the Cedar River made perfect sense in the 1920s and keeping it there makes sense today.
“Many years ago this site was chosen for city government because it was a neutral site between the communities of Cedar Rapids and Kingston,” he said. “That decision brought people together and still does today. This memorial and home to city government has served us well. It is time to reach back to that same unifying spirit.”
Corbett said the current City Hall administration has been given the approval to spend $24 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief money to bring the Veterans Memorial Building back to life. Instead, he said, city leaders have set the matter aside to spend many, many more months exploring the idea of building a new facility somewhere else.
At the end of the day, the city must restore the Veterans Memorial Building in any event, he said, and he said the city should do it out of respect for veterans and to get people in down economy back to work.
“The culture of delay is hurting everyone,” Corbett said. “It is time to get on with our lives.
“We have 7,900 people in this county unemployed. We have laborers in the construction trades that stand ready to work. Unfortunately, we have a City Council stuck in a culture of delay. … We are losing an entire construction season. The delays have to stop.”
Ray Dochterman, business manager of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 125, said his appearance at Corbett’s event on Thursday was not yet an official endorsement of Corbett for mayor. But he said he invited 50 members of his union to come out and listen to Corbett, and 50 members showed up.
Dochterman liked that Corbett was talking about turning federal dollars into jobs.
“You know we’re a little short of jobs right now,” he said.
Scott Smith, president of the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Building and Construction Trades Council, was on hand Thursday, too, to hear Corbett.
“He’s got some good ideas, and I think he’s looking to take charge and get work going here that needs to be done,” Smith said. “It’s been nine months since the flood, and there’s not a whole lot of progress.”
George Hammond, a long-time member of the city’s Veterans Memorial Commission, said veterans just want the city to use the federal money to bring the building back to life whether city government returns to it or not.
“All we want is the building back,” Hammond said.
Standing on the edge of the crowd was City Council member Pat Shey.
Later, after the Corbett speech, Shey said he was “disappointed” with Corbett what Corbett had to say. He called it advocacy for the “status quo.”
Shey said the council is still negotiating with FEMA over the amount of damage to the building even as the city begins a public participation process to help figure out what is the best future use for City Hall.
“I cannot recall any discussion about building a Taj Mahal,” Shey said. In fact, he said no one has advocated building a “new” structure for city hall.