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

Mayor’s speech downtown is a reminder that all is not well there

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Justin Shields, Mayor Kay Halloran on February 28, 2009 at 6:48 am

A mayor’s annual address on the condition of the city is generally an upbeat affair with a focus on the accomplishments in the year past and the ones sure to come in the year ahead.

That was the case on Friday when Mayor Kay Halloran and Brian Fagan, mayor pro tem, spoke at the League of Women Voters of Cedar Rapids/Marion’s annual State of the City luncheon.

This year, though, it was hard not to feel how far there is yet to go in the city’s recovery from the June 2008 flood, a recovery that must come in the midst of a troubling national economic downturn.

Friday’s event was held in what over the years has become the lone downtown venue for such gatherings: The Ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Five Seasons Hotel.

The hotel is in bankruptcy and being run by an interim hotel manager, and for more than a year now, the hotel chain that owns the Crowne Plaza moniker has threatened to withdraw it from Cedar Rapids only downtown hotel.

The previous owner of the hotel had been required to upgrade the building to keep the Crowne Plaza name, and, in fact, much of that work was completed, reports Patrick DePalma, chairman of the city’s Five Season Facilities Commission. The rooms still need new TVs, and, more to the point of the mayor’s Friday speech, there is still a need to upgrade the hotel’s Ballroom, DePalma says.

One of the typical routes to The Ballroom is through the entrance to the U.S. Cellular Center, which is joined to the hotel. You walk in the center’s lobby and head up the towering escalator to the next floor to get to the hotel lobby and The Ballroom. But the escalator has been out of service since the machinery that drives it took on water in the June flood.

Nearly nine months after the flood, there surely are some who, hiking up the stationary escalator steps, aren’t wondering if the city’s recovery from the flood will ever come.

The city’s Facilities Commission oversees the city-owned event center and it plays a role in the hotel because the city owns the land and air rights for the hotel.

The commission’s DePalma says he’s tried to impress on the city the need to get moving on fixing the flood damage to the U.S. Cellular Center’s lobby and to the escalator there. He says the work is dependent on funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and he says City Hall controls the schedule on which of the many flood-damaged city properties gets fixed first.

“We’ve talked to the city and said, ‘Let’s get this done,’” he says. “The work that needs to be done is fairly minor in terms of how much it would take and how much it would cost compared to (other projects).”

DePalma says the city’s first focus in the downtown is to fix elevators in damaged parking ramps.

“We understand that,” he says. But he says he hopes the U.S. Cellular Center comes soon after.

“Any pressure you can put on them,” DePalma says. “It’s not a difficult thing to take care of. But I can’t hire a contractor.”

Under consideration, he says, is doing away with the escalator and replacing it with an elevator and a staircase.

The public now can ride the elevator next door that leads into the hotel lobby on the second floor.

For whatever reason, the audience was a little smaller this time for the mayor’s annual address. The League of Women Voters put the count at about 300, down about 60 from the year before.

Six of nine City Council members did not attend to hear their council colleagues, Halloran and Fagan, speak. Council member Justin Shields was on hand.

The center of the city’s government has been operating out of an office building in a northeast Cedar Rapids office park since the flood. The council holds its formal Wednesday evening meetings in an auditorium nearby on the AEGON USA campus. The flood-damaged City Hall downtown remains empty and awaiting renovation.

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