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Who are you for? Anonymous phone survey has 5 on list for mayor: Corbett, Fagan, Hinzman, Olson and Vernon

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Gary Hinzman, Mayor Kay Halloran, Monica Vernon, Paul Pate, Ron Corbett, Scott Olson on January 12, 2009 at 4:40 pm

An anonymous phone survey conducted in recent days in Cedar Rapids has been asking a scientific sampling of residents some questions about city government. The survey ends with a bottom line: Who do you want for mayor, Corbett, Fagan, Hinzman, Olson or Vernon?

Yes, this is a municipal election year, and six of the nine Cedar Rapids City Council seats are on the ballot, including the mayoral seat currently held by Kay Halloran.

The phone survey did not include Halloran’s name among the list of five it was seeking to find out information about, and she has not said if she will seek reelection.

The first question you need to ask is this: Do you know the first names of the five in the survey and why they are on the list?

Actually, all five are well known and accomplished.

Corbett is Ron Corbett, who has been past speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives and, more recently, president of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce from 1999 until mid-2005. He left the chamber to take a vice-president post at CRST International.

Fagan is Brian Fagan, a Cedar Rapids attorney, at-large City Council member elected in 2005 and the council’s mayor pro tem.

Hinzman is Gary Hinzman, executive director of the Sixth Judicial District Department of Correctional Services and former Cedar Rapids police chief.

Olson is Scott Olson, a commercial Realtor and architect, who lost a run for the mayor’s job in 2005 in a close contest with Halloran.

Vernon is Monica Vernon, a local business owner and the District 2 council member who won election in 2007.

Vernon is president of Vernon Research Inc., a company that conducts phone surveys. However, Vernon said on Monday that neither she nor her firm is conducting the survey. Others said the survey calls were coming from an area code outside of Eastern Iowa.

Some reported Paul Pate, mayor from 2002 through 2005, was on the list, but others reported last evening he was not.


Surprising neighborhood-building legacy taking shape for Paul Pate

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Paul Pate on September 18, 2008 at 2:46 am

It was nice seeing Paul Pate last week.

Pate, the city’s last full-time mayor under its former commission form of government, turned out for the city’s open house at the Crowne Plaza Five Seasons Hotel to see what options the city’s team of consultants had come up with to protect the city against future floods.

Pate was in blue suit and tie, nicely tanned and in good cheer. He always did have a great laugh.

Talking to him was a reminder that both he and Lee Clancey, whom Pate unseated as mayor in 2001, liked a city form of government that featured a full-time mayor along with a city manager or city administrator.

The city’s Home Rule Charter Commission, though, opted for a “weak-mayor” form of government with a part-time mayor and council and full-time city manager. It is the option cities have chosen over the years, seeing it as a little longer on professional management and a little shorter on local politics.

Pate, who served as mayor from 2002 through 2005, chose not to run for the part-time post once voters decided in a referendum in 2005 to go that route. He’s back running his asphalt company.

Though not in city office, Pate actually is having a city legacy created for him in the aftermath of June’s flooding.

The City Council now is moving aggressively to bring to life a neighborhood-building initiative that Pate, though he didn’t create the idea, near single-handedly insisted on bringing to life in his last year in office in 2005.

The initiative is called HAND – Housing and Neighborhood Development. It consists of the city using city money to buy up vacant lots in a 14-block area of the Oak Hill Neighborhood. Money also is available to help provide incentives for builders and homebuyers to make the new homes “attainable” and perhaps “affordable” for those who otherwise couldn’t afford them.

One home has been built to date, but Skogman Homes this week now has said it will build the next 11. The goal is for a total of 50 new homes.

It seems an improbable legacy for Pate, a pretty conservative Republican in a universe where inventive inner-city housing initiatives often are thought to come from Democrats. Beyond that, Cedar Rapids City Hall really has not invested itself much in housing matters using city funds.

But Pate, a former state senator, former Iowa Secretary of State and one-time Republican candidate for governor, did an unexpected thing. Actively participating in the U.S. Conference of Mayors when he was mayor, he got himself named as co-chairman of a national task force on homelessness and hunger. That made him determined to take a step to implement a program in Cedar Rapids to address what he was dealing with on a national level.

To commit city funding for HAND was no easy task for Pate in 2005 in a tight-budget time among a five-member City Council members scrambling to find money for firefighters, police officers and all the rest. It was not a unanimous vote in favor of Pate’s plan.

This week, at Wednesday evening’s council meeting, council member Brian Fagan noted that the HAND idea had, to date, been an “underperforming” one. And Fagan added that another model might be worth exploring down the road in other neighborhoods. But Fagan called the Skogman plan to build 11 homes in the HAND district an “exciting” one.

City Hall, Realtor Scott Olson continue debate on growth in the local commercial sector — What do you think?

In City Hall, Paul Pate on May 17, 2008 at 12:44 pm

Is the local economy booming?

Scott Olson, the local commercial Realtor who was narrowly defeated in the mayoral race in 2005, had the littlest of public dust-ups with City Manager Jim Prosser back in March at the public hearing on the city’s annual budget.

Olson was one of a couple people to come to the City Council microphone that night in March to comment on the city’s annual budget.

He first praised the council for its willingness to assume an increased level of debt to raise money to take care of needed infrastructure repairs and downtown revitalization. What’s the sense of having the top bond rating if the city “is falling apart?” he asked.

Olson then went on to say the lack of growth and vitality in city’s commercial sector was “an embarrassment.” He said the city’s hard-to-navigate regulatory system made developing and building new projects in Cedar Rapids difficult. And he recommended streamlining the system, which, in fact, the city’s Community Development Department and the local development community now are working to do.

To that, City Manager Jim Prosser took a bit of an exception.

In part, Prosser said some of the value lost in the commercial sector came because a number of property owners had successfully appealed and had their valuations lowered. Prosser’s point: There was still growth in the commercial sector.

Prosser and Olson also disagree over a number.

In any event, the city’s document over which Olson and Prosser were debating showed that the value of commercial property in the entirety of Cedar Rapids had declined by 1 percent for the year. Data from the Linn County Auditor’s Office shows as much.

That was weeks ago.

In the last several days, the city has mailed out its periodic newsletter, and on page 8, City Hall took space to make a case for the robustness of the local economy.

It was something of a reminder of Mayor Paul Pate’s mayoral term, from 2002 through 2005, when Pate, a small businessman and a sparkplug for the private sector, routinely brought out data on new-home starts and building permits.

The most recent “Your City Newsletter” puts it this way:

“Construction activity was strong in Cedar Rapids in Fiscal Year 2007 and continues strong in Fiscal Year 2008, according to a comparison of the number of building permits and valuation with other major Iowa communities. Construction activity means Cedar Rapids is continuing to grow and both residents and businesses are investing in their properties and/or new properties, helping to ensure a vital and healthy community.

“For the first two-thirds of Fiscal Year 2008, the City has issued twice as many building permits as the City of Des Moines and the value of those projects is about $18 million more than Des Moines’ total building permit projects.

“Cedar Rapids building permits include additions, new construction, remodels, and repairs. The permits also include both residential and commercial buildings. …”

Then on Friday, Scott Olson came out with his periodic “Memo” to Mayor Kay Halloran and the City Council.

The Memo offers some of Olson’s insights from his Skogman Commercial Real Estate Services Group’ office, 122 Third St. SE, and it includes his updated “Commercial Market Overview.”

It’s fair to note that his look is of the metro area, not just Cedar Rapids.

“In general,” Olson says, “we are doing just fine in all categories except retail.” He reports he is headed to a convention in Las Vegas next week to study retail trends and to talk to retailers and mall owners.

He continues: “The Des Moines metro area continues to lead the state in construction activity …” He points to the construction of Aviva USA headquarters in suburban Des Moines, saying it is just one of several large-scale projects underway in the Des Moines area.

“Each project is exceeding our total annual volume in commercial construction,” he says.

Olson — He’s also an architect: He’s the “O” in OPN Architects Inc. though he left the firm for real estate years ago — talks of a recent trip to Chicago, where he toured the new 92-story Trump Tower. He learned that 62 construction cranes were now up in the downtown Chicago landscape. He says Cedar Rapids needed to find a way to make Cedar Rapids’ city bird become the “tower crane.”

In his market overview, Olson reports that available retail space in the metro area has increased 10 percent in the last six months, which makes for a “weak” economic sector, he says. He says one “bright spot” is a 12 percent decrease in available office space. Another is continued interest in development land in the city’s industrial zone in southwest Cedar Rapids, he says.


Are worlds colliding? Can City Hall insist on nice design from developers focused on less regulatory red tape?

In City Hall, Paul Pate, Tom Podzimek, Viewpoint on May 7, 2008 at 4:39 pm

One of the roles of City Hall is to oversee what gets built in the city.

In that world of development, there are two interests that often seem to pull in different directions.

On the one hand, there is the development community — developers, landowners, builders, Realtors, engineering companies and others.

And then there are those on the City Council who have an interest in design and beautification, extras that can cost builders more than they might have planned on investing.

Earlier this week a Rhode Island tourism expert was in town talking to elected officials about their plans for riverfront improvement through the downtown, plans that include a RiverWalk, an outdoor amphitheater and other amenities.

Council member Tom Podzimek asked Robert Billington what communities in the Blackstone River Valley of Rhode Island and Massachusetts were doing to prevent themselves from looking just like every other community in the nation. Billington told Podzimek that the Blackstone Valley hadn’t figured out what to do with the expanding number of strip malls either.

“They (developers) can build what you want,” Billington said. “… But if you don’t know what you want, you’re going to get what they want.”

The factors brought to bear of what is built and how it is built in a community can include more than just more taxes,  jobs and money for the community, Billington said.

Be that as it may.

At this week’s Wednesday evening council meeting, city staff will report on yet another special endeavor – it is being called an “event” this time around – in which a selected group of developers, builders, Realtors and others in the development community have been huddling with city staff to try to streamline what the development community perceives as City Hall hurdles, rigmarole and red tape. All the regulation slows down building projects and drives some off, the development community says.

Twice in the mayoral administration of Paul Pate, from 2002 through 2005, similar efforts were made.

One of those, in part, did away with special design standards required of building projects along major routes at the gateways to the city. The thought of the design standards, adopted during Lee Clancey’s mayoral run, was that there was merit to beautify the spots people saw first when they came to Cedar Rapids. But the developers and builders ultimately prevailed: The bow to beautification at certain spots simply prevented people from building there, the development community insisted.

Apparently many of the recommendations of the second Pate-era development task force were put aside as the city changed its form of government and a new City Council and the city’s first city manager took over in 2006.

So, City Hall and the development community are back at it again.

Surely, the effort has merit. The very nature of government regulation is that it slows the pace, and who would object if regulation can be thoughtfully tweaked to accomplish without obstructing.

It might be nice to hear from a contingent of neighborhood representatives who have battled development projects in recent years to get their read on any proposed changes.

How the hopes for design standards and “sustainable” practices — another idea supported on the City Council – fits into streamlining regulation remains to be seen.

It’s easy, though, to remember the City Hall effort, which it set aside in December, to insert itself into planning for a better future for the long-struggling Westdale Mall.

In the Westdale instance, the city staff had proposed suggested special design standards for the mall’s periphery where two developers were planning to build a couple of restaurants and to renovate the former Big Lots store building. The developers wondered who was going to pay the additional costs to incorporate the design standards into the project. Ultimately, the development was set aside.

Remember, too, the construction of the new neighborhood Hy-Vee Food Store at 1556 First Ave. NE a few years ago on the busy, highly visible First Avenue East. Improving the exterior look of the store required local tax incentives or the company would not have replaced its old, ugly store with the new one.


Moving bus depot to a new Intermodal facility on the edge of downtown closes in on reality

In City Hall, Pat Shey, Paul Pate on April 20, 2008 at 3:32 pm

Earlier this month, the City Council said it was all-but sure it had found the spot among 26 possibilities and four favorites to build a new bus depot called the Intermodal Transit Facility.

The council now has put the matter on its Wednesday agenda so it can vote on the site, in the 900 block of Third Street SE. The site is across the street from the empty Osada apartment building, which a developer is readying to convert to the Bottleworks condominiums.

The proposed site for the new Intermodal is now home to a couple of warehouses and Loftus Distributing. The owner of the property, which is assessed at $472,205, has been called a willing seller. The cost to demolish what is on the property is estimated at $400,000.

Sam Shea, the city’s long-term planning coordinator, reports that he ran the proposed site for the Intermodal by the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization last week and found no objection there.

He notes, too, that the city has $11 million in federal funds for the project, which has been put off and the location of it moved for now the third time.

Initially, the Intermodal was slated to be built across from the U.S. Cellular Center, which is some distance from the city’s Ground Transportation Center bus depot, which sits in the 400 block of First Street SE. Back then, a big part of the Intermodal was a parking garage, and the facility also was to provide space for an adult day care, the Witwer Senior Center and a few transit assets – the Neighborhood Transit Service, LIFTs buses and the occasional intercity bus.

However, during the mayoral term of Paul Pate, the decision was made to move the Intermodal to the 600 block of Second Street SE. The Witwer Senior Center no longer was part of the idea, but most of the rest of the original parts, including the parking ramp, were.

The city has design drawings of the Second Street SE site as pretty as the ones for the site across from the U.S. Cellular Center.

The building nearly got built on Second Street SE.

However, council member Pat Shey spoke up and said it didn’t make any sense to build a new transit facility just two or so blocks from the Ground Transportation Center bus depot. As importantly, Shey argued that the GTC depot worked to turn First Street SE into a place where pedestrians were forced to dodge city buses while the city wanted the street along the Cedar River to be a pedestrian-friendly place.

A Minnesota consultant subsequently weighed in, saying the existing GTC depot was a danger to pedestrians and that the new Intermodal, as then proposed, would be obsolete as a transit facility and parking ramp the day it opened.

City staffer Shea now says City Hall has plenty of work to do to once again get the Federal Transit Administration on board with moving the Intermodal to yet a new spot. Additionally, the current GTC bus depot has federal-funding strings attached to it that need to be sorted out.

The thought is the GTC depot can be renovated into commercial or office space or some other use.

As for the new proposed spot for the Intermodal, in the 900 block of Third Street SE, the idea is that a bus depot is really a spot where riders transfer from one bus to another. Hence, it does not need to be in the heart of downtown.

Construction of the Intermodal, Shea has said, is still a few years away.


The state of the State of the City luncheon

In City Hall, Mayor Kay Halloran, Paul Pate, Viewpoint on April 9, 2008 at 3:09 am

One doesn’t have to reach too far back to remember annual State of the City luncheons sponsored by the League of Women Voters in Cedar Rapids that had a little dash and theater.

Mayors Lee Clancey and Paul Pate, who served as mayor six and four years respectively, come to mind.

Pate and his right-hand man, Doug Wagner, had multimedia. They handed out CDs trumpeting the progress the city had been making.

Pate even broke with the League of Women Voters a little, not sure he liked the idea that the event was a moneymaker, a fund raiser, for the group. At one point, Pate held the event at the Paramount Theatre, not at lunch, but at the end of the afternoon.

In reaction, the League said it held the copyright to the very name of the annual speech – State of the City.

Pate countered, celebrating a month of State of the City events.

Again, it wasn’t without a little theater back then.

At lunch on Tuesday, 359 people were on hand in a ballroom at the Crowne Plaza Five Seasons Hotel to listen to Mayor Kay Halloran and City Manager Jim Prosser.

The timing was a little messed up at the start.

The sit-down for lunch began at 11:30 a.m., but there was much eating yet to do when the mayor took to the microphone to deliver her speech. It was hard to hear for the clank of flatware on dishes as many in attendance went on eating as she went on speaking.

The speech was a reprise of the one Halloran had given at the end of February before the start of a city council meeting. The city charter requires the mayor to give an annual update before the end of February, and so she took the speech out for a first airing then.

This time, after her speech — one of its points was that the city was ready for a leap ahead — Prosser joined her on the dais for questions from the audience.

Keep in mind: The city has a part-time council/city manager government now. Questions from the public, they say at City Hall, often can be about the “operational.” And city managers, they say, are the nuts-and-bolts operation types.

Prosser, who can toss in flashes of stand-up, did much of the answering.

He said it was not “desirable” for the city to have waste water being pumped into storm sewers and then waterways at times of significant rain. He said the city was working to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order requiring the city to meet Clean Water Act standards.

Halloran noted that the city on Tuesday had received notice of a $200,000 grant from the EPA for an unrelated matter — brownfield clean-up.

“We’re good guys and bad guys all at the same time,” Halloran quipped, suggesting the EPA still liked the city.

Prosser noted that the winter had been tough on the city. He said it would take another few weeks to get the streets cleaned up, and he said this summer would bring more street repair than the city had anticipated because of the winter weather.

He added, though, that the city had “strong reserves” and the ability to borrow to take care of such problems.

Among other answers:

— Prosser said the city needed the proposed new transit facility in an “appropriate place” other than the location of the city’s current Ground Transportation Center bus depot. The new facility will be served by city buses, NTS neighborhood vans, LIFTs buses and inter-city buses, he said.

— He and Halloran both said the city needed the ability to diversify its sources of revenue so commercial and industrial property owners don’t carry such a large load of the cost of city government. A legislative proposal introduced by Rep. Tyler Olson, D-Cedar Rapids, would help by giving cities the ability to raise revenue via a 1 percent sales tax, a 5 percent fee on utility bills, a tobacco tax and other means. Both Prosser and Halloran doubted state lawmakers would do much on the bill until those in Tuesday’s luncheon audience got behind the tax idea. Prosser acknowledged that non-profits would face some of the new fees.

— Prosser said “the next frontier” for cities like Cedar Rapids is figuring out how to attract a work force in the years ahead. It won’t happen unless cities add amenities, different and varied kinds of housing, including downtown housing, and attractions like the city’s proposed RiverWalk, he said. He noted that some of the city’s top employers have been helping work the Iowa Legislature to secure state help for the RiverWalk and downtown revitalization. The City Council has made it “crystal clear” that downtown revitalization is vital to its vision of the city as “a vibrant, urban hometown.”

— Halloran said young college graduates often feel they need to leave for places where they can earn more so they can pay off deep college debts.

— Prosser said city staff and the city’s two hospitals have been talking about the creation of a “hospital corridor” and the development of housing in that corridor to help with the hospitals’ work force needs.

— Prosser said the city was only as strong as its weakest neighborhood as is a block only as strong as its weakest home. “Neighborhoods: That’s where lives are shaped. That’s where kids grow up,” he said.

— Prosser said the Police Department was a “pretty resilient group,” suggesting that officers were working hard even if some in the department weren’t happy with some changes there.

— No, he didn’t expect to get an assistant city manager any time soon, calling it “a little indulgent for us to do that at this time.”

At the end, Prosser and Halloran were asked about the public comment period at City Council meetings in which the current council has decided not to engage in back-and-forth interaction with the people making comments.

Prosser said he wanted to drive home the point that citizens have numerous ways to interact with his staff and council members other than the public comment period at two council meetings a month.

Halloran noted that many of the items raised during public comment periods are “operational” questions. By that, she means questions about the day-to-day operation of city government that are the responsibility of the city manager and his staff.

It’s not different at council meetings, Halloran told the audience, than it had been just then, during the State of the City question-and-answer session. That’s why Prosser talked most, she said.


Stamats Communications tells City Hall to stay away; build Intermodal Transit Facility elsewhere

In City Hall, Pat Shey, Paul Pate on March 29, 2008 at 10:52 pm

Some $9 million in federal funds for a new downtown Intermodal Transit Facility has been in the city wallet for half a decade now.

It’s become a long story.

In the latest chapter, a City Hall task force is working to find a new site for the facility, which as now planned will become the new home to the city’s bus depot, now at the Ground Transportation Center, and also home to the Neighborhood Transit Service vans, LIFTs buses and the occasional intercity bus.

In early February, the task force and then the City Council identified four downtown sites that seemed best bets for housing the new Intermodal.

Three of the four are privately owned: the 400 block of Fourth Avenue SE, which houses TrueNorth Companies; the 500 block of Sixth Avenue SE across from the U.S. Post Office; and the 300 block of Ninth Avenue SE, occupied by Loftus Distributing Co.

The fourth location, the most distant from downtown, is the site of the former Iowa Iron Works, now owned by the city, in the 400 block of 12th Avenue SE.

Part of the option in the 500 block of Sixth Avenue SE is owned by Stamats Communications Inc., 615 Fifth St. SE.

And in a pointed letter to City Hall on March 26, Guy Wendler, president/CEO of Stamats, said the city should shop elsewhere.

“In sum, we are not interested in considering the sale of the subject property and are quite concerned that it is even being considered given the expected adverse impact on our business,” Wendler writes.

In the letter, he spells out five specific reasons why Stamats would not want to sell and why it would harm the firm if such a thing happened. Among his points:

–Stamats recently demolished an old building to create a landscaped parking area for employees. Giving the lot up would make it harder to retain and recruit employees

— Stamats has made a substantial investment in its headquarters building, 615 Fifth St. SE, and also has improved the third and fourth floors of the Theatre Cedar Rapids Building in downtown where the company leases space.

— Stamats, which provides marketing products for colleges and universities,  has created a “campus-wide” design at its headquarters to help make clients feel comfortable when they visit.

“For them to come here and enter a building across the street from a busy bus station would not leave them with the type of impression we feel is important for keeping their business,” Wendler says.

Prompting the letter from Stamats’ Wendler was a recent visit from Sam Shea, the city’s long-range planning coordinator and the head of the downtown task force on the Intermodal.

Shea is scheduled to speak to the City Council at its work session on Wednesday evening to update them on the Intermodal.

In truth, Shea is in the midst of a complicated assignment, which he has said means that the construction of the Intermodal is still a couple years away.

Firstly, City Hall must find a site. Then it must win the backing of the Federal Transit Administration to move the site of the Intermodal from where it had been slated to be built. And it also must win the federal agency’s blessing to move the existing bus depot, which the agency help fund 25 years ago.

A quick little history:

The Intermodal first was slated to be built across First Avenue East from the U.S. Cellular Center. The city has design plans.

But the plans changed, and City Hall during Mayor Paul Pate’s administration opted to put the facility in 600 block of Second Street SE. The federal transit agency ultimately agreed. The city bought the land and paid for the design drawings.

Last fall, though, the new City Council pulled the plug on a second idea after council member Pat Shey said it didn’t make sense to build it so near the existing bus depot and after a Twin Cities consultant said the building’s 500-space parking ramp as well as its transit component would both be obsolete the day the facility opened.

That changed everything. The idea now is to incorporate the existing Ground Transportation Center bus depot in the new facility, convert the bus depot to something else and to forego the parking-ramp component of what is built.

The City Council also would love to identify a private partner who might be willing to incorporate some kind of mixed use – offices, residential units, for instance – into the new facility.