Cedar Rapids plans for growth, maximizing 'pull factor'

Corbett: Cedar Rapids is a sales-tax city now

Rick Smith
Published: January 5 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:38 am in
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The smoke has cleared now from two major, late-year triumphs at City Hall, leaving Mayor Ron Corbett to connect the dots.

Two dots, that is, and this verdict: Cedar Rapids suddenly has become a sales-tax city, Corbett said.

Cedar Rapids long has been cool to approving the 1-percent local-option sales tax, though the city’s historic flood of 2008 did convince voters to put the tax in place for flood recovery until June 30, 2014.

In 2011 and 2012, voters in Cedar Rapids turned down a referendum to extend the tax. But on Nov. 5 of last year, voters changed their minds and agreed to extend the tax for 10 years, starting on July 1, 2014, to fix city streets.

Revenue from local sales tax now will pay to fix city streets, not revenue from property taxes.

A month later, on Dec. 4, the Iowa Flood Mitigation Board awarded Cedar Rapids $264 million over 20 years to help the city build a flood protection system. This money will come from a portion of the growth in the state’s 6 percent sales tax collected in Cedar Rapids over those two decades.

So within a month, revenue from sales tax — to fix streets and to build a flood protection system — suddenly became more vital to the city than at any time in its history.

"We’ve basically been a property-tax community, where you get revenue when a new building is built or an existing one is expanded or renovated," Corbett said. "… In the past, we have had almost zero benefit from sales tax growth or even job growth. Our growth has come from property taxes.

"Now we have more of an interest not just in protecting our property-tax base, but in growing our sales-tax base."

Diversification

For a minute, the mayor caught himself, recalling that the city’s first city manager — Jim Prosser, who started with the city and its new part-time council in August 2006 — preached that the city needed to "diversify" its revenue and not depend so much on revenue from property taxes. The Corbett-led council and Prosser parted ways in April 2010.

Corbett said Cedar Rapids, as the state’s second-largest city and second-largest regional retail center, attracts people for work, shopping and enjoyment of the city’s entertainment, cultural and recreational offerings.

"We have to maximize the pull factor," he said. "Without it, our streets budget will suffer, and our increment (from state sales tax growth in Cedar Rapids) may not grow to the level it needs to be to maximize that funding stream for flood protection."

Corbett said he has strongly supported the $90 million-plus redevelopment of the Westdale Mall property into a healthier mix of retail, office, housing and a hotel because it promises to provide a boost to sales-tax revenue as well as future property-tax revenue.

The Cedar Crossing Casino also will mean more sales-tax revenue as well as future property-tax revenue, if the project succeeds on April 17 to secure a license from the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission, he said.

He said employee income in retail work sometimes isn’t as high as people want, but he said the "overall economic impact" for the community from retail expansion and sales tax will now show up in the quality of the city’s streets and in flood protection, the mayor said.

As a result, the mayor said the City Council will continue to look at property-tax breaks in trade for new retail investment, which the council has done on the Westdale Mall project and The Fountains office and retail project off Blairs Ferry Road NE and Edgewood Road NE.

At the same time, population growth fuels expansion in the retail sector, and so Corbett said the city will continue to focus on economic development to add jobs and housing to try to make sure growth projections come to reality.

'Geographic growth'

In 2014, the mayor predicted the City Council will see new pressure from developers for "geographic growth" in the city.

In recent years  — and especially since the flood of 2008 damaged some of the city’s core neighborhoods — the City Council has focused on "infill" development in the existing parts of the city rather than on development on the city’s edges.

However, Corbett said 2014 will see the start of construction on the long-delayed, $200 million Highway 100 extension project, which will take Highway 100 from Edgewood Road NE west and south to Highway 30. The highway automatically will open up land for development, which means the city’s geographic borders will expand, the mayor said.

In recent weeks, in fact, he said the city annexed 60-plus acres for new housing construction on the west edge of northeast Cedar Rapids at the request of property owners and developers.

"We are ‘open for business,’" Corbett said, repeating what has been his go-to, economic-development mantra. "So we’re going to need to grow everywhere in our community, not just in two or three areas in the core of the city."

The mayor said 2013 was "jam-packed" with accomplishments for the city, and he quickly wrote down 10 victories — with no room to mention his own easy re-election to a second, four-year mayoral term.

The list included voter approval of casino gaming; the extension of the local-option sales tax to fix streets; the state Flood Mitigation Board funding award; initial approval in both houses of Congress to back federal support for the city’s flood protection; progress on Westdale Mall and Highway 100; the city’s designation as a Blue Zone community; and  the opening of several city buildings as part of the city’s flood recovery.

Those buildings include a new library, convention center, central fire station, riverfront amphitheater, public works building and animal shelter and a renovated downtown city hotel, arena and bus depot.

"What happens, you get a long list of accomplishments, and sometimes people get a little complacent about it," Corbett said. "We’re having some success in this community because we’ve put our foot on the gas pedal, and I’m not interested in taking our foot off the pedal, and I’m certainly not interested in tapping the brakes."

Traffic cameras

At the Statehouse, Corbett said the city will continue to make the case to keep traffic enforcement cameras in the city, even as the Iowa Department of Transportation seeks to increase its oversight of the use of cameras by Iowa cities.

In fact, Corbett said the city of Cedar Rapids should consider installing more cameras — on sections of Highway 30, for example — rather than restricting their use.

"They’ve been beneficial on Interstate 380," he said. "… Sometimes the best defense is to go on the offense. We have to be concerned about the health, welfare and safety of our residents."

Corbett said he doesn’t have any crystal ball to predict what the state Racing & Commission finally will decide on April 17 about the proposed Cedar Crossing Casino across the Cedar River from downtown Cedar Rapids. The commission will be in the city on April 3 to tour the casino site.

"One of the advantages we have going into this thing is the unity of the community," the mayor said. "… We’re making the case that a Cedar Rapids casino can have more of an impact over the coming years than any other casino license that has been granted in the state of Iowa."

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