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

Can Corbett get to City Hall from halfback, ice-cream trucks, House speaker, Chamber chief and trucking firm v.p.?

In City Hall on March 8, 2009 at 9:34 pm

In his time as president/CEO of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce from mid-1999 to mid-2005, Ron Corbett was in the news nearly as much as the mayor and other members of the City Council.

Back then, he tried to convince city and county government to merge governments, without success. He successfully helped push a school bond vote. He helped hustle state Vision Iowa money. He even helped get $10.5 million for the RiverRun redevelopment project, money that came to nothing when residents declined to pass a local-option sales tax to support the project.

Perhaps most importantly, Corbett led the community petition drive to in 2004, which forced the creation of a Home Rule Charter Commission. The commission then picked a new form of government for the city – one with a professional city manager and part-time council – and put it to a vote June 14, 2005. Residents approved the change by a 69-31 percent vote.

The next day, victory in hand, Corbett announced his departure from the Chamber, and he headed to Cedar Rapids trucking firm CRST International Inc., where is a vice president.

After 13 years in the Iowa House of Representatives – including five years as speaker of the House – and six at the Chamber, he all but vanished from the public stage.

“I wanted to focus on my business career,” he says now.

Even then, it figured he’d reemerge. And now he has.

“I guess the old pilot light never went out,” says Corbett, 48, of 321 30th St. SE. “And after the flood, and seeing the struggles that the community was facing, I started thinking about running for mayor. And as I met with people over the last three months, I decided I should.”

He’s scheduled a news conference for 10 a.m. Monday to formally announce his candidacy for mayor.

He’ll be standing outside the closed-down Swiss Valley Farms dairy plant, 133 F Ave. NW, the owners of which left town after the June flood damaged the building.

Corbett says he’ll bring a reinvigorated focus on economic development.

The times call for it, he says. With the sour economy, the credit crunch, the energy crisis and the city’s flood recovery, the city, he says, needs a new economic development “game plan.”

This theme sends Corbett hurdling back to his earlier life, when, after setting school football rushing records that still stand today, he graduated from Cornell College and headed out into the job market. It was 1983 and he says the jobless rate then was as grim as it is today.

Corbett started out selling insurance, and a few years later, he and two partners started a small business selling ice cream from trucks in the neighborhoods of Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. The outfit was called Peppy’s Ice Cream, named for one of two miniature schnauzers he and his roommate had in college. The choice of name was easy. The other dog’s name was Buckwheat, and Corbett says he didn’t think Buckwheat’s Ice Cream would get much traction.

Corbett says the mid-1980s in Cedar Rapids were not particularly pleasant times as some of the well-established manufacturing plants, including the packing plant, closed or left town. But back then, local leaders put together a plan of attack that over the years has reestablished the city’s employment base. It’s time to focus on that again, he says.

“It’s one thing to say you’re open for business,” Corbett says. “But if you don’t follow up with action, it’s just hollow words. So as mayor, I’ll put a full-court press on, bringing more jobs to this town and rebuilding our commercial and industrial tax base.”

“… Dubuque got IBM and we didn’t,” he adds, noting a recent economic-development success for Dubuque.

Corbett was only 25 when he decided that he would run for a spot in the Iowa Legislature. That year he defeated Paul Pate, who later became a state senator, Iowa secretary of state and Cedar Rapids mayor, in the Republican primary and won the legislative seat a month after he turned 26. Six years later, he defeated then Rep. Kay Halloran, now the city’s mayor, and at age 34, he became the youngest speaker of the Iowa House in history.

In 1999, he left state politics to run the Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce, and he left there six years later for a slot as vice president at trucking firm CRST International Inc.

In other words, he hasn’t run for elective office in 11 years.

He says he is entering the mayoral race first because he has to rebuild the campaign contacts he had all those years ago. And he’s not talking about a casual campaign.

After all, it was Corbett backers who launched the campaign season two months ago when they conducted a phone survey of Cedar Rapidians to see which possible candidates, including Corbett, had name recognition enough to make a run for mayor.

Also on the list were Gary Hinzman, director of the Sixth Judicial District Department of Correctional Services and former Cedar Rapids police chief; Scott Olson, a commercial Realtor who nearly won the mayor’s seat in 2005; and council members Brian Fagan and Monica Vernon. The survey didn’t include Mayor Halloran, who has said she will announce later this spring her mayoral intentions.

Today, as he announces his campaign, Corbett won’t try to miss a beat. There’s the 10 a.m. news conference outside the closed plant in a flood-hit neighborhood on the city’s west side. Look for him on the lunch-time news. He talks to the Gazette editorial board early in the afternoon. There’s the Bob Bruce Radio Experience a few hours later. And, no doubt, he’ll be on the evening news.

“There seems to be a lot of indecisiveness and a lot of delays,” Corbett says. “And the citizens of Cedar Rapids are frustrated, and it isn’t just the people affected by the flood. It’s everybody.

“I share that same frustration. That’s why I’m running. To put together a new game plan for Cedar Rapids.”

Corbett reads the news.

He still recalls a cartoon that was in the Des Moines Register some years ago in which a Rip Van Winkle-type of fellow is sleeping under a tree and a young athlete is running past him. The guy sleeping is labeled Des Moines, and the runner is Cedar Rapids.

“Cedar Rapids was on the move then,” Corbett says. “I can’t put my finger on it when it happened, but I think people just kind of sense that we’re not hitting out stride any longer.”

Corbett also has a news story from January, in which council members Justin Shields and Jerry McGrane had returned with a less-than-pretty picture from a lobbying trip to the Statehouse in Des Moines. Shields said lawmakers and policymakers there were calling the Cedar Rapids city government “dysfunctional,” and McGrane said people gave the impression that the city’s government was full of “nincompoops.”

“I’m extremely bothered by that,” Corbett says. “I, like many other Cedar Rapidians, have pride in our town. So one of the first orders of business under a new game plan is to repair our image.

“Why is improving our image so important? It isn’t because of arrogance or ego. We have to repair our image because if you have no confidence in the CEO and board of directors of a company, you’re not going to invest in that company. That’s why image is important.”


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