Get talking to Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz about economic development and, before you know it, he’s pulled a large framed photo off his office wall.
The black-and-white shot features a rickety bridge flanked by a sleek new one over the Rio Grande, connecting Mexico to Del Rio, Texas, home to Pomeranz’s first job as city manager.
“I was 27 at the time,” said Pomeranz, a native of Queens, N.Y., and now 55. “I get energized making positive things in a community happen. My job is to see opportunity.”
Along the way, Pomeranz spent eight years in Port Angeles, Wash., at a time when the city’s main employer, a timber company, closed its plant. So he’s been up close to a community battling decline, too.
He prefers the other.
It is that preference that the Cedar Rapids City Council shared when in 2010 it grabbed Pomeranz and his resume of economic development triumphs in West Des Moines to help Cedar Rapids get back on its feet after its historic 2008 flood.
For Pomeranz, it’s been a role reversal.
No longer is he part of the fast-growing suburbs around the big city in the Des Moines metro area, where he helped make economic development deals with the likes of Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, Aviva USA, Jordan Creek Town Center mall, Microsoft and two hospitals.
On Sept. 20, 2010, he suddenly started working in the big city in the Cedar Rapids metro area, where some on the City Council were on edge about what they felt they were losing to ambitious neighbors Hiawatha and Marion.
“The City Council was tired of watching the city’s tax base slip away,” Corbett said of the thought behind hiring Pomeranz. “And with Jeff coming on board, who already had great success in West Des Moines with a lot of development deals and a lot of growth, it was a perfect fit.”
In an interview last week in his City Hall office conference room, Pomeranz said that a big city in a metro area can lose its “nimbleness” and start to assume that development will come its way because it is bigger.
Not so, he said.
“It is absolutely critical that a large core city be in the game, be aggressive, be willing to compete,” Pomeranz said. “You have to make sure you have a business environment where companies want to move and grow and prosper.”
“It’s not just about throwing dollars out” in the form of economic incentives, he said. Important, too, is helping a developer maneuver through issues such as zoning changes, infrastructure needs and permitting requirements, he said.
Pomeranz said West Des Moines did not favor development incentives when he arrived in 1998.
“We felt companies should want to be in our community,” he recalled.
But he said economic times changed, and cities discovered that competition among communities nearby and across the nation had intensified. Companies expected economic incentives as a condition of moving in.
By way of example, he talked about the call he got about a development project from Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, which made it clear that they also were looking at the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, the Carolinas and Texas. West Des Moines’s offer of incentives ultimately prevailed, and now Wells Fargo Home Mortgage is one of the largest employers in Iowa, he said.
“’We’re looking at a variety of other communities, and incentives will be important,’” Pomeranz recalled Wells Fargo saying. “They always say that.
“It’s reality. It’s part of the development arena right now. … You have a choice. You can say no, or you listen.
“Then you try to minimize what you have to pay and maximize the scope of the project. That’s kind of the dance.”
Since his arrival in Cedar Rapids in September 2010, the list of private-sector development projects with city incentives stretches to more than 15. In addition, the city also has a development deal with Penford to sell the processor a city park for expansion, and a development agreement in place to build a parking ramp for use by the city and Cedar Crossing Casino.
A few other deals are in the works, Mayor Corbett added.
One of the incentive recipients is developer Joe Ahmann, president of Ahmann Companies in Hiawatha, who has begun construction on a $35-million upscale office and retail development called The Fountains off Blairs Ferry Road NE and Edgewood Road NE. And he also is ready to renovate the flood-hit former Great Furniture Mart warehouse on First Street SE in downtown.
Before Pomeranz’s arrival, Ahmann said he nearly turned his back on Cedar Rapids over the regulatory hurdles he said he faced in the city.
“‘No, we can’t do it, no, we can’t do,’” he said he continued to hear from city officials before his arrival. “It was them against us, them against the developer.”
He recalled asking himself, “Why are we doing business here? Let’s go back to Hiawatha.”
Scott Byers, a Realtor at GLD Commercial in Cedar Rapids, is part of an investor group that bought the long-struggling Westdale Mall at the end of 2012 and that is leasing the property to developer John Frew, who has obtained City Hall incentives as part of a $90 million project to transform the site.
Byers called Pomeranz’s help and the assistance of his City Hall development staff in the process “huge.”
“He welcomes you into their world now and tries to solve problems as opposed to what it used to be,” Byers said of Pomeranz. “I’m just glad he’s a city manager and not a commercial real estate guy because he’d be tough competition.
“He’s very knowledgeable. He understands how deals are made.”
Hunter Parks, president of the Hunter Companies Inc. in Cedar Rapids, spoke in equally strong terms, saying the city manager has brought “a breath of fresh air” and a dose of “common sense” to City Hall for the development community.
Parks said he’s built an assortment of smaller projects in the city since Pomeranz’s arrival three years ago. Most recently he secured a city economic-development incentive for the last phase of the Edgewood Station commercial development next to Westdale Mall.
“Instead of saying, ‘We can’t do it because that’s the way it is,’ he wants to figure out how to make something work,” Parks said of Pomeranz.
Lon Pluckhahn, who has been city manager next door to Cedar Rapids in Marion since 2007, said he has known Pomeranz for some years, and he said it hasn’t surprised him to hear Pomeranz talk about the need for Cedar Rapids to be competitive on the economic-development front.
“Jeff’s always been very aggressive,” he said.
Pluckhahn said his city manager predecessor in Marion, Jeff Schott, felt that it was important to streamline the development process so the city could move ahead quickly on projects in Marion — an understanding that Pluckhahn said Pomeranz appears to have brought to Cedar Rapids.
Marion believes in providing financial incentives for projects, too, he said.
The Marion city manager pointed to Ahmann’s Fountains development now under construction in Cedar Rapids as an example of the kind of project that had been heading to Hiawatha or Marion in the past.
“That one was pretty squarely aimed and what you find in Hiawatha or Marion,” he said of Cedar Rapids’s incentives for the Ahmann project.
However, Marion isn’t shaking in its boots and, in fact, recently secured a commitment from a new manufacturing company that Cedar Rapids also had tried to lure.
“We don’t win them all, we don’t have to win them all,” Pomeranz said. “What we want to do is put our best foot forward and be as competitive as possible.”
Pomeranz said the post-flood public-sector investment in Cedar Rapids and now the private-sector investment that is following on its heels is more investment in three years than a community might see in 25 years.
“We have boom here,” he said. “You could go your entire lifetime as a city manager and not be involved in this much investment.”
Pomeranz said he understands that some people don’t believe that City Hall should provide economic-development incentives — nearly all of which consists of foregoing some or all property-tax revenue for a period of time that would not be coming in but for the new investment — to support development, attract new companies and help existing companies progress and grow.
“If you are saying that (property-tax incentives are) wrong, you’re saying that development would occur anyway,” Pomeranz said. “In West Des Moines, there are a number of projects that, without public support, would not have occurred.
“I would say the same thing in the city of Cedar Rapids.”
He said no deal is done just to do a deal.
“People are going to read this and say, ‘It’s all about giving money away,’” Pomeranz said. “Well, it’s not. … We want to make sure these projects are in the best interest of the community.
“Not all deals are good. And we don’t do every deal. We keep in mind every day about being financially responsible.”