CEDAR RAPIDS — Only a decade or so ago, the city’s now-buzzing New Bohemia arts and entertainment district along Third Street SE was mostly a forlorn industrial brownfield area within eyeshot of the city’s downtown.
This week, City Hall unveiled a new piece of good news for the district: A local, 13-year-old, 75-employee, health care software and services company has asked to buy the now-city-owned, 3.6-acre vacant lot that once housed the Iowa Steel plant at 415 12th Ave. SE.
The company, Geonetric Inc., leases office space at 4211 Glass Rd. NE, but Eric Engelmann, company president/CEO, told the City Council’s Development Committee this week that he “fell in love” with the New Bohemia district and so wants to build a new office building and move his company there.
“I think it’s got a lot of charm, sort of a free spirit, creative, innovative kind of environment, and I think that matches us really well,” Engelmann said of New Bohemia on Thursday.
In a letter to City Manager Jeff Pomeranz, Engelmann said that the former Iowa Steel site provides easy access for customers and employees, gives Geonetric a chance to invest in Cedar Rapids and fits the company’s own sense of itself.
“We need to contribute to, and benefit from, the area’s unique culture,” he told Pomeranz.
In response, the council committee recommended that the full City Council move ahead to seek competitive proposals for the former Iowa Steel site, which is required when the city disposes of city-owned property. Proposals will be due on March 8.
Pomeranz spoke in support of Geonetric to the council committee, saying Geonetric was a “local company that is growing.” He applauded Engelmann for “believing in” the New Bohemia district.
Pomeranz noted that Engelmann wasn’t proposing to construct a building on speculation that he might attract tenants. Instead, he was talking about adding jobs to the city and neighborhood.
Engelmann on Thursday said it’s possible the growing company could double its work force from its current 75 employees in five years.
Council member Monica Vernon, the committee chairwoman, said she hoped any new building would be more than one-story in height and be consistent with the character of the historic buildings in the neighborhood.
The company’s current lease, he said, runs through the spring of 2014. He said he expects to pick a builder for the new project in a couple of months.
Council member Scott Olson, a committee member, wanted to make sure that the city established a value for the site, which Christine Butterfield, the city’s community development director, said the city will have the City Assessor’s Office do. Olson said the price of the property then would become a negotiating point as part of any incentives that Geonetric might seek in trade for investing in New Bohemia.
The Iowa Steel site is one of five abandoned or underused industrial sites known as “brownfields” that the city has purchased in New Bohemia for redevelopment with the help of federal and private funds in the last 12 years. Nearly all the original buildings on the properties have been demolished.
In addition to the Iowa Steel site, the city has purchased the former Iowa Iron Works plant across 12th Avenue SE from the Iowa Steel plant; the sprawling former Sinclair meatpacking plant; the RESCAR train-car repair shop next to Sinclair; and the former Quality Chef property.
The NewBo City Market has renovated one of Quality Chef buildings and is operating there, and Alliant Energy has built a new substation on the former RESCAR site next to the Sinclair property.
As for the Iowa Steel site, the city acquired it in 2000 as part of a three-way deal between the city, Terex Cedarapids Inc., which owned the site, and nearby St. Wenceslaus Church, 1224 Fifth St. SE.
The company donated the property to the church and the church, in turn, gave it to the city. In exchange, the city paid the state of Iowa for a portion of a state loan that Terex Cedarapids Inc. had obtained but needed to pay back because it had failed to meet the loan’s job-creation requirements. The city also made a commitment to the church to one day extend 14th Avenue SE to the church’s location on Fifth Street SE.
Subsequent to the purchase, the city obtained federal brownfield money to demolish the Iowa Steel buildings and to conduct an environmental assessment and cleanup of the site. The site is now ready for redevelopment, the city’s Butterfield told the City Council committee this week.
Back in May 2003, city officials held an event at the former Iowa Steel site at which time they ripped down a chain-link fence around the property to signal that it was open for redevelopment. It has sat empty, waiting for someone like Engelmann to express an interest.
At Wednesday’s council committee meeting, Vernon said that local developers also are expressing great interest in city-owned parcels in New Bohemia that the city has acquired through the city’s flood-recovery buyout program. Of particular interest has been the vacant lots at 1020 and 1028 Third St. SE, the former home of the Brosh funeral home.
This week, the City Council gave the go-ahead to seek proposals for the former Brosh site. The city will conduct an informational meeting about the property at City Hall on Dec. 10 with proposals for the property now expected to be due by Feb. 5.