Elected officials cast oodles of votes over time, and dragging just one vote from the dust bin of local history is iffy at best.
But it’s tempting.
The temptation came in recent days when a couple of young professionals, who have recently moved to Cedar Rapids, were talking about the First Avenue Hy-Vee Food Store, pointing out that it was different than the grocer’s other suburban-style stores in Cedar Rapids.
The store at 1556 First Ave. NE is different: It is Hy-Vee’s only store in an urban neighborhood in Cedar Rapids.
It’s smaller than other stores. It has a warehouse-style like a Sam’s Club store. The floors are polished concrete. The customer base is the city’s most diverse. Some people actually walk to shop there.
These youngster pros, though, had no idea how the 6-year-old store came to be and they didn’t know the great community debate that preceded the store’s construction.
Do you remember it?
Two former Cedar Rapids City Council members who cast votes on the First Avenue NE store’s future back in 2001 now are running for key elective Linn County offices.
Lyle Hanson, who served two stints as Cedar Rapids finance commissioner/council member, is on Tuesday’s Democratic primary ballot, giving incumbent Linn County Auditor Joel Miller a run for his seat.
And David Zahn, who served as Cedar Rapids public safety commissioner/council member, is running as a Republican for Linn County sheriff. Zahn is not being challenged in Tuesday’s primary, but will have a Democrat to contend with in November.
Hanson voted against providing Hy-Vee Food Stores with $915,000 in local incentives upfront to build their new store at the First Avenue site, while Zahn, after some uncertainty, became the third and decisive backer of the incentives. His backing cleared the way for the new store to be built.
It was a great debate. It remains a great debate. Thousands of people in Cedar Rapids drive by the store everyday on busy First Avenue East near downtown. What do you think about the store when you drive by?
After all, City Hall had not been in the business of extending tax incentives, usually used for industrial projects, for a retail store.
Were the incentives fair to other grocers? Should Wal-Mart or Target or Aldi or Fareway get incentives when they decide to build somewhere?
Hanson, who at the end of the day cast the lone “no” vote on the project, concluded that the city’s upfront cost for the Hy-Vee project was too high. He thought, too, that the city ought to spend some time to see if other grocery chains might be willing to build on the site. Maybe another grocer would do it for less, he said.
Zahn finally concluded that the issue was as much about neighborhood revitalization and public safety as it was about retailing. Older urban neighborhoods like the two that depend on the First Avenue NE store – Wellington Heights and Mound View – deteriorate when they lose their grocery store, Zahn concluded.
He noted, too, that the city had intended to use incentives for a nearby industry, Cedarapids Inc., but the industry had not met job retention and hiring requirements. So the city had tax revenue it could steer to the Hy-Vee store, Zahn argued.
As recently as 2001, the Hy-Vee store at 1556 First Ave. NE was a tiny, century-old eyesore that Hy-Vee had been readying to desert for a year or more and neighborhood leaders had spent a decade trying to get Hy-Vee to replace.
Then-Mayor Lee Clancey and then-Parks Commissioner Dale Todd lobbied Hy-Vee hard to work with the city to come up with a way to build rather than flee.
At the store groundbreaking in October 2001, Ron Pearson, Hy-Vee president, said neither Hy-Vee nor any grocery chain in the world could have built a new store on the site without city help.
Pearson said he told Clancey, “We have looked at every number know 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.”
The grocer had been leasing the former store, a 13,000-square-foot testament to a long-gone era of grocery sales.
The near-$1-million city incentive came in the form of tax-increment financing, and is an amount the city will recoup over 20 years from the increase in property taxes the new store and other new development will generate in the urban renewal district that the store is in.
The city money was used to purchase land, demolish the old store and pay for a nicer exterior to the new store.
At the groundbreaking, Pearson said Hy-Vee was investing $5 million in the store. He said the new store would employ twice as many employees as the 50 in the old store.
The new store is a 26,000-square-foot one, which is less than half the size of most of its suburban-style stores, the company said at the time.
Among those at the groundbreaking was council member Hanson. Being on the short end of a council vote wasn’t going to keep him away from where the city was headed, and where it was spending its money.
Clancey and Todd didn’t survive the 2001 election, while Hanson and Zahn were reelected.
Clancey said at the time she didn’t know if backing the First Avenue Hy-Vee cost her some votes elsewhere in the city. It shouldn’t have: The store was good for the entire community, she said then.