CEDAR RAPIDS — Claims by local school officials that convenience stores attract robbers, promote alcohol and tobacco use and cause junk food-fueled obesity failed to find a footing here with a City Council majority, which on Tuesday cleared the way for Kum & Go to build a new convenience store at 1420 Mount Vernon Rd. SE.
The store location on a busy four-lane street at the boundary between two core Cedar Rapids neighborhoods, Wellington Heights and Oak Hill, was opposed by the Cedar Rapids school district and school board, which argued at a hearing Tuesday that the store site was too close to McKinley Middle School for the well-being of its students.
However, City Council member Pat Shey, who represents council District 3 in which the school and store site sit, borrowed Missouri’s “Show-Me” state motto and said, “Show me that this is a problem.”
Shey said he had asked opponents of the Kum & Go store proposal to provide him with data that showed a “nexus” between convenience stores and alcohol, tobacco and obesity. In response, he said he received “generic” studies produced by the health industry.
“I got to thinking the fate of the Western World as it relates to cigarettes and alcohol and obesity hinges on whether we (approve) this store or not,” Shey said. “At the end of the day, I just wasn’t convinced.”
Shey said Kum & Go’s plan to invest $4 million at the site is a “reinvestment in an area that desperately needs it.”
The council vote was 5-3 to deny the school board’s appeal of a September vote by the City Planning Commission, which approved the Kum & Go’s site plan on a 4-2 vote. Commission votes on site plans can be appealed to the council.
Council member Don Karr, along with Mayor Ron Corbett and council member Ann Poe, sided with the school district’s unsuccessful argument. In so doing, Karr said both that convenience stores can attract gun-toting robbers and the city has been remiss in not adopting regulations that keep convenience stores farther away from schools.
“If one person shoots a gun in that store and a stray bullet goes across that field to McKinley school and kills one child … then we’ve failed this community,” Karr said.
The city’s current regulation requires the front door of businesses that sell alcohol and tobacco be at least 300 feet from a school building measured along a sidewalk. The closest part of the Mount Vernon Road SE store site is about 500 feet from the McKinley school building and the store’s front door is about 720 feet from the school, according to the city’s information .
In his comments to the City Council on Tuesday, Steve Goodall, McKinley Middle School principal, said the city’s separation requirements were not “responsible” ones.
City Council member Monica Vernon said she would be willing to review the city separation standard in the future.
However, council member Kris Gulick said denying Kum & Go’s proposal now would require the city to ignore current city law and “arbitrarily change laws on the fly.”
In the end, Gulick, Vernon, Shey and council members Chuck Swore and Justin Shields agreed that Kum & Go’s proposal met all of the city’s zoning and other ordinances and rules for the Mount Vernon Road SE site, which once was home to both a grocery store that sold alcohol, tobacco and treats and a gas station that pumped gasoline, noted Jim Piersall, the Cedar Rapids attorney who spoke for Kum & Go.
“No difference,” Piersall said between Kum & Go’s plans and the site’s past. He said he presented letters to the City Council from school districts with schools near Kum & Go stores that had good things to say about the company.
Vernon took exception with the characterizations from school officials and former teacher Kathleen Dowd Ulrich that convenience stores are bad for neighborhoods.
“I am concerned about this tone ….,” Vernon said. “I don’t believe that convenience stores are inherently evil. … I think we get emotional, and we go kind of sometimes half-cocked at this.”
Dowd Ulrich noted that there was an armed robbery five blocks away at another convenience store on Monday morning.
School board member John Laverty, who joined principal Goodall and Dowd Ulrich in comments to the council on Tuesday, did say he s was “pleased” that the city would make traffic improvements on Mount Vernon Road SE near the proposed new Kum & Go.
The city’s traffic engineer, Tom Peterson, detailed several such improvements, which include extending the median so eastbound traffic can’t turn left on 14th Street SE and widening and moving the sidewalk farther away the street on Mount Vernon Road SE.