UPDATE: Mayor Ron Corbett told a lunch gathering of 600 at his State of the City speech Wednesday that Cedar Rapids has found its second wind — a second burst of momentum in its recovery from the 2008 flood that he said is only now starting to kick in.
It was a message the brought a rousing standing ovation from the overflow crowd at The Hotel At Kirkwood Center in the annual event sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Linn County.
“After the flood, we were out of breath,” the mayor said in the 60-minute speech and question-and-answer session. “We were tired and worn down and not too sure about the future. And yet we found the strength to push on. We have our second wind.”
As the five-year anniversary of the city’s historic June flood approaches, Corbett emphasized that the city — with significant federal disaster assistance, as well as private — has built new residential units in the city equal in number to the number ruined by the flood and now demolished.
To date, 1,325 new units of housing have been built and another 642 units are in progress, according to city figures as of Feb. 21.
“I believe 10 years from now, if the story is ever written about how Cedar Rapids recovered from the flood, housing will be credited as the most important reason (for the recovery),” the mayor said.
Corbett noted that New Orleans’ population remains at about 80 percent of what it was before 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, while Cedar Rapids’ population has continued to grow despite the June 2008 flood, which he said impacted 19,000 residents and forced 10,000 from their homes, at least for a short time. The city has demolished more than 1,000 homes since the flood, he said, but even with that, the city’s population continues to grow.
“The people of Cedar Rapids didn’t abandon us, and we didn’t abandon them,” the mayor said.
He credited the city’s professional planning staff for navigating the maze of federal and state disaster regulations and then thanked private-sector homebuilders and non-profit neighborhood-building organizations Habitat for Humanity, Block By Block and Four Oaks’ Affordable Housing Network with getting the homes and apartments built.
The mayor said the city still is appealing a few disaster-funding decisions made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but as far as housing support, “the federal government didn’t let us down,” he said.
Corbett also said that the city’s rebuilding program has worked to make sure that local contractors and workers are doing the work, and he said keeping that revenue in the community has helped the local economy.
Don’t discount, the mayor said, the value of the large city public rebuilding projects — the library, the Paramount Theatre, the central fire station and some more controversial ones, like the convention center and the now city-owned downtown hotel.
He said the city’s investment in these public projects — which have included financial support from federal disaster dollars, state help, local tax dollars and private donations — has proved to anyone looking at Cedar Rapids that the city is “serious about building for the future.”
“That gives confidence to the private sector,” Corbett said. “When you believe in yourself and invest in yourself, others take notice. They, in turn, believe and start to invest their own money.”
In 2012, the private-sector money has begun to blow into Cedar Rapids’ redevelopment, he said.
He then ticked off an assortment of private-sector projects, most of which have obtained some City Hall financial backing, that have come to pass, are in progress or are on the way. The list included investments by Cargill, Raining Rose, Intermec, Diamond V, CRST, AMTek, Pinnacle Engineering and developer Steve Emerson, who has built a new downtown office building. Projects to come include the renovation of the historic Louis Sullivan bank and the construction of a new residential condominium next to it; construction of an upscale office park called The Fountains; and the $90 million transformation of the Westdale Mall property.
“Yes, the investment breeze came in strong,” Corbett said.
“A year ago, people focused on the extensive public-sector investment, and some were concerned that we were being reckless in our spending,” the mayor continued. “Some thought we were being wasteful. But today, the public sector investment pales compared to what is being invested by the private sector.”
Hy Vee Food Stores, he noted, has announced $270 million in construction projects in Cedar Rapids and elsewhere in the Corridor this year.
Corbett offered this, too, in a room loaded with people from the city’s business community: “I believe we would not have had this level of private sector investment in our community if we had not taken some risk and forged ahead with (public-sector) rebuilding.
“It took the public sector’s investment to prove that we would rebuild for the future. And now the private sector is eagerly moving forward with us,” Corbett said. “Second wind — you bet. We believed in ourselves, and because we did, others have also.”
Corbett said the city’s recovery also has come house by house and business by business, as flood survivors fixed up their homes and their businesses and others in the community helped out.
The mayor singled out Sarah Ordover, Lisa Rhatigan and Kim Vogel for helping to bring about the New Bo City Market; Amy Stevens, a service manager at the local Alliance Select office, who alerted local leaders that her company was thinking of adding new jobs, a move that resulted in new jobs coming to the metro area; Santiago Sanchez for his painting of the Police Department’s K-9 unit; and Rick Davis, a flood survivor who encouraged the city to launch a river cleanup campaign.
Corbett also applauded the community’s success in being named a healthy living Blue Zones community and he complimented the Four Oaks helping services agency for its TotalChild initiative, designed to work with at-risk children and their families from an early age through high school.
Corbett is in his fourth year as mayor and is running for re-election this year. He closed by saying that being mayor is not unlike those who return home after a distant volunteer mission to say, “I got more out of that experience than I gave.”