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City Council heads to First Avenue Hy-Vee: A testament to risk-takers who came before

In City Hall, Viewpoint on March 25, 2008 at 7:20 pm

The City Council this evening is holding its second “Conversations with Council,” an informal event that the elected city officials are taking to a variety of venues around the city on the fourth Tuesday of each month.

This time, the council is landing at the 6-year-old Hy-Vee Food Store, 1556 First Ave. NE – which is something of shrine of a neighborhood triumph that came before this council’s time.

The triumph was one that took years to realize. It did not come without controversy. And it required the need of a past City Council to extend an economic incentive that rarely has been extended to a retail enterprise in the city.

The former Hy-Vee store, which like the new one sits on the border between the old Wellington Heights and Mound View neighborhoods, had become an anachronism by the late 1990s. It was a small eyesore of a neighborhood grocery, which had long been in decline on the city’s busiest street, First Avenue.

Over a number of years, neighborhood leaders and then, city officials, lobbied Hy-Vee to replace the old with something new. Through it all, Hy-Vee was alternatively saluted for keeping open a neighborhood store and criticized for not replacing it.

By 2001, it was not clear how long Hy-Vee could keep the place open and it was not clear how long the city wanted the unattractive place to stay.

So the City Council and Hy-Vee reached a deal: The city agreed to pay up to $915,000 toward the cost to purchase land, demolish the existing store and add a more attractive exterior to the new store – a specially sized neighborhood store in an era of giant new grocery stores built away from older neighborhoods  — than Hy-Vee had intended.

 It is an investment the city is recouping over 20 years through increases in property taxes at the store site and in other parts of the urban renewal district of which the store is a part.

Not everyone in town was happy about a retail store in one particular part of the city getting such a deal.

Ron Pearson, Hy-Vee’s president, came to Cedar Rapids for the groundbreaking in October 2001 and said the company could not have replaced the old store but for the incentives. Pearson told then-Mayor Lee Clancey it couldn’t be done otherwise.

“My point was to tell her, ‘We can’t do this,'” Pearson said back then. ‘”We have looked at every number known to a human being, and I can’t take it to our stockholders and tell them we’re going to build a project and lose money forever.’

“When I got done, and seeing the enthusiasm and her (Clancey) saying, ‘We can make this happen together,’ that’s what changed my mind,” Pearson said then. “It changed my whole thought about this project.”
A month later, Clancey and then-Parks Commissioner Dale Todd, who had lobbied Hy-Vee for years, firstly as a neighborhood president, both were defeated in re-election bids. It was unclear what if any role the store played in the defeats.

At the time, Todd said, “Five years from now, people won’t remember the battle

that was fought over the Hy-Vee store. But it was the right thing to do.”

It’s six years later. And on Tuesday, Todd hadn’t changed his mind. He called the store among the best projects he ever had been involved in.

“The new store did its part to stabilize the neighborhood,” Todd said. “Without it, there’d likely be an empty store on the site. And a significant number of people simply wouldn’t have access to quality food.

“Aesthetically, it’s pleasing to look at and be in. And it’s more than a grocery store. It serves as a community place for people in the neighborhood.”

  1. The Hy-Vee store is a testament to Dale Todd’s committment to our community and those that are often neglected. It’s too bad we don’t have more leaders of his caliber.

  2. I no doubt believe Hy-Vee would not have built a new store at that location. Grocery store operators look at their markets like McDonalds does, that is why when you go to look for a new store they are always built further and further out in the suburbs. The problem is they haven’t a clue the vast majority of people who live in the inner city spend more of their money on food than any other item save rent. There are food stores currently beginning to revisit these spaces others have abandoned because there is money to be made. Capitalism is built on those who take risks. Building a big box suburb store here in the neighborhood doesn’t make sense, but building a store that fills the demand of the neighborhood is a good risk that is going to make lots of money for someone. I had hoped that someone would have stepped in and filled that need especially if they had been recruited to do so. The city wouldn’t waste its time, they proceeded to give the keys to the kingdom to Hy-Vee and so now we have what we have. It works and does the job, but it cost us nearly a million bucks to get something that might have cost us next to nothing.

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