The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

Neighbors, get organized; City Hall brings in an expert so flood-hit neighborhoods don’t have to turn to ghost towns

In City Hall, Floods, Jerry McGrane, Neighborhoods, Pat Shey on August 16, 2008 at 9:33 pm

City Council member Jerry McGrane parlayed his visibility as president of the Oak Hill/Jackson Neighborhood Association into a successful run for the District 3 council seat in November 2005.

McGrane on Friday reported that his years of work with his neighborhood organization were sometimes frustrating ones, and he said a lack of support and resources from City Hall over the years was part of the reason the organization often floundered.

“It got harder and harder to work with city government,” McGrane told his council colleagues. “Funding was always a problem. … Without resources, people start fading away.”

In truth, citizen participation in neighborhood associations in Cedar Rapids has never been all that active, except in the Wellington Heights Neighborhood, which began what there has been of a neighborhood association movement here in the early 1990s.

It is true, too, that barely existent or dormant neighborhood groups can catch fire when a hot-button issue arrives to get neighbors off the couch.

June’s historic flood destroyed the couch.

With that in mind, City Hall has brought a Chicago-based, non-profit group to Cedar Rapids to help the city’s flood-wrecked neighborhoods find a voice and create an action plan.

Tim Duszynski, director of national programs for the Institute of Cultural Affairs, says the issue for the neighborhoods is whether they will cease to be a neighborhood anymore, whether they will become ghost towns or whether they will stay and build.

The Time Check Neighborhood is one of the city’s hardest hit neighborhoods, and its Northwest Neighbors group has been a struggling one. Frank King, who headed the group a few years ago, had agreed to lead it again prior to the June flood. A flood victim himself, he’s been a visible presence in the days and weeks since the flood even as he has been working to renovate his own house.

In the two months since the flood, no one has been more visible or vocal than Oak Hill/Jackson’s president, Mike Richards, also a flood victim. Richards also is a member of the New Bohemia group, an active entity in the neighborhood which has been working to establish an arts and cultural district along the now-flood-hit Third Street SE. Richards lives on the second floor of a storefront on Third Street SE.

Across the Cedar River from New Bohemia is the heavily damaged Czech Village commercial district, which features one of the city’s biggest attractions, the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. The business owners are quite mobilized.

Fourthly, the Rompot neighborhood in far southeast Cedar Rapids also was hit and hurt by the flood.

Council member Pat Shey, who is an attorney and has been a banker, has been promoting the creation of a non-profit Neighborhood Finance Corp. in Cedar Rapids similar to one in Des Moines. The idea is for the corporation to be a conduit of funds to homeowners who decide to stay in a neighborhood and make it better. What the city gets over time is a larger tax base while the neighborhood gets improved, more attractive housing and a nicer, safer place to live.

Sandi Fowler, the city’s neighborhood liaison and assistant to the city manager, noted that some neighborhoods in Des Moines have not received money because they did not have sufficient enough of a neighborhood organization to oversee the spending.

“To qualify, a neighborhood had to get organized,” she said.

Shey noted that the city of Cedar Rapids really doesn’t have that many neighborhood associations.

Des Moines, he said, had six. Now, he added, it has 54.

They needed to be organized to get access the neighborhood finance corporation there, Shey said.


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