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

Westdale Mall owners have been over at City Hall, too; Prosser’s all ears, but he says there’s nothing to hear

In City Hall, Jim Prosser on February 1, 2009 at 11:02 am

It’s been a little odd to see no mention of City Hall what with all the talk about the owners of Westdale Mall trying to get Linn County to buy the long-faltering retail center.

After all, Linn County primarily fixes secondary roads and oversees state and federal funding of vital services for the developmentally disabled, the mentally ill and the poor.

Linn County historically hasn’t been out there trying to orchestrate a huge redevelopment task inside the city of Cedar Rapids.

Turns out, the current owner of the mall -– a bank stuck with the property it assumed control of in a July 2007 sheriff’s sale when the former owner failed to pay $18 million in debt — has been over to City Hall after all, reports City Manager Jim Prosser.

Or people “purporting” to represent the mall owner, the city manager says.

The thing is, though, neither Prosser nor the City Council is any kind of dumping ground.

At the same time, Prosser is the first guy standing in line to listen to somebody who wants to invest as much thoughtfulness, creativity and fiscal accountability as he does.

Prosser last week said he was all ears when owner representatives showed up a couple times in the recent past. But he Prosser said they didn’t have anything to offer the city.

“Give us a plan,” Prosser said he asked them. “Our response has always been … we’ll listen.”

Any plan would have to include a different vision for the mall, which would identify which part of the retail operation is viable and what do with the rest of the place. There might offices, condos, a public library and more, which is what City Hall spent much of 2007 suggesting to the owners.

Prosser says the city needs to have some facts about which retailers now at the mall have good numbers and what the retail prospects are for the place. How else can the city determine the site’s value, and so, a purchase price? he says.

Many have probably already forgotten, but, yes, Prosser and the City Council invested considerable time and some money back in 2007 trying to help the owner of the failed mall to imagine what the future there might look like.

This City Hall effort, of course, came before the June 2008 flood at a time when the council and the city manager had the freedom and luxury to imagine they could try to fix chronic city problems.

Back then, they wanted to try to help figure out how to transform the failing retail center into something the future could support. The reasoning: the 80-plus-acre Westdale property has been a valuable piece of property, which has contributed to the city’s valuation and its property-tax base.

Prosser and the council brought in an out-of-state consultant, and yes, there was a little anti-consultant bashing.

But they had pictures and everything of how the future might look. Some of the mall would survive, with the strongest stores “refaced” to face out to the parking lot. Other parts of the mall would be demolished to make way for other uses, condos, offices and, perhaps, a library.

In fact, the council established a development moratorium on the entire 80-plus-acre site for a few months, in an effort to make sure a developer didn’t come along, cherry-pick the best development sites on the edges that might louse up the ability to market the entire site as a whole.

By the end of 2007, the council had done enough. The owner wasn’t interested. A few local Realtors said the mall could survive as a retail center. And citizens turned out and said they wanted to see stores like “Hobby Lobby” in the retail mix.

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