Think back seven years, to the year 2005. The world was a different place. Paying $4 a gallon to fill up a gas tank during the summer was unheard of. Selling a home usually took no more than a fresh coat of paint and a few weeks of open houses, about the same amount of time many workers could find a higher-paying job.
Also at the time, political and economic leaders in the Cedar Rapids area offered up the "15-in-5" Project, a list of 15 ideas that could become reality within five years.
Some of the 15 ideas are necessary for any successful community, such as high-end employment, accessible housing and effective, easily available education programs. Others on the list may have been a stretch, even during those heady days, such as light rail transit between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett was still in the legislature when "15-in-5" was crafted before the difficult years that followed.
"The economic crisis hit in 2008, and we've been in recession since that, and then to have the flood on top of that," said Corbett.
When asked about keeping Cedar Rapids attractive to businesses amid an economic downtown and the devastating flood of 2008, Corbett said one important move was to show that the city valued the city.
"When it came to the infrastructure projects like the Convention Center, the library, the fire station and the investments we made to shore up the neighborhoods by putting housing back into the neighborhoods that were flooded, that sent a real key message to the business community that, if you're willing to invest in yourself, you believe in yourself and, when you believe in yourself, others start to believe in you," said Corbett.
The "Jobs Goal," listed as the top project on the "15-in-5," calls to add more than 1,000 manufacturing and food processing jobs.
Corbett pointed to the city working with Penford Products, on the west bank of the Cedar Rapids. Recently, the city and the company reached a deal for Penford to expand.
"Those are manufacturing jobs," said Corbett. "Those are good paying jobs and you can go out and roll out the red carpet for businesses that aren't here but the businesses that are here have been adding the jobs over the past year and they kept our unemployment rate to a level where a lot of medium-sized mayors around the country would be envious of."
Another cornerstone element from the "15-in-5" is the fourth idea, providing access to early childhood education throughout the area.
Chris Kivett-Berry, community project director with Linn County, is at the forefront on advocating for these programs, especially in the areas of the county where budgets are tight for parents.
"Early childhood development really is economic development," said Kivett-Berry. "Research repeatedly documents that children who have participated in early childhood care and preschool have a higher graduation rate, are more likely to go to college and have higher lifelong earning potential."
Kivett-Berry said the recession has created a "perfect storm."
"You have more people in poverty and more children in poverty, so fewer people are able to afford child care," said Kivett-Berry. "Less funding then comes in from the federal and state level so the availability of high-quality child care is also being reduced."
The 2005 "15 in 5" Project:
1. Jobs Goal – We should establish a goal to retain, expand, and attract jobs that pay living wages and health benefits, such as a net addition of 1,000 manufacturing and food processing jobs over five years.
2. Entrepreneurial Development Fund – We should establish a local $1 million-plus Entrepreneurial Development Fund to help promising new businesses that have a quality business plan with small grants of up to $20,000.
3. Business Incubator – In partnership with the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and Kirkwood Community College, we should create a business incubator to provide a physical space for new businesses and non-profits using university research and technology or other public business assistance.
4. Early Childhood Education – We should support the Birth to Five Initiative led by Linn County Community Empowerment to end the current waiting lists and to make low-cost, quality child care and preschool available to all families, especially those families with incomes less than 200% of the federal poverty guidelines.
5. After-School Programs – To improve community safety and education, we should provide after-school programs – such as the “After School Academic Challenge and Enrichment Program” at Polk Elementary School – for every student who needs them, especially in our five core neighborhoods (Mound View, Wellington Heights, Oakhill Jackson, Taylor Area, and Northwest Area).
6. Summer-School Opportunities – In partnership with area businesses, retirees, and colleges (e.g., Kirkwood, Mt. Mercy, and Coe), we should make summer-school remedial and enrichment programs available in reading, math, science, computers, foreign language, business, and vocational education.
7. Student Community Service Goal – In partnership with area nonprofits and the Workplace Learning Connection, we should establish a goal that 50% or more of our high school students will participate in regular community service.
8. 211 First Call For Help – We should maintain and improve the 211 First Call For Help program, and the agencies that provide assistance through that program, to meet the basic needs of children, seniors, and others in need.
9. Housing Improvements – We should identify and reduce by 50% or more the number of vacant and dilapidated houses in the five core neighborhoods (Mound View, Wellington Heights, Oakhill Jackson, Taylor Area, and Northwest Area).
10. Energy Conservation And Efficiency – We should establish a goal of reducing energy use per capita by 10% over 5 years, develop measures to monitor progress toward this goal, and encourage conservation and efficiency to achieve the goal.
11. Highway 30 To Clinton And Ames – We should advocate a plan to expand Highway 30 to four lanes from Clinton to Ames for completion by 2015.
12. Light Rail Transit To Iowa City – Given the potential for congestion on Interstate-380 and rising gasoline prices, we should develop and begin implementing a plan to establish a light rail line from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City by 2015.
13. Joint Land Use Plan And Trust Fund For The Technology Corridor – We should develop a joint land use plan and environmental and recreation trust fund for Linn and Johnson Counties to identify, protect, and improve existing and future park land, recreational facilities, natural areas, agricultural land, and open space.
14. Recreational Trail For Cedar Rapids, Iowa City & Amana – We should complete a recreational bicycle trail to connect Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Amana.15. Cedar Bend Project – We should complete the Cedar Bend project, including recreational use of the Cedar Bend Lake, extension of the Sac and Fox Trail to the Cedar River Trail, construction of a new Witwer Senior Center to house senior organizations and activities, construction of a new market space, and conversion of the existing landfill to public open space.