Mayor Ron Corbett used his fifth annual State of the City Address on Wednesday to tell a lunch crowd of 650 that the city has rebounded from its historic flood disaster of 2008 with a new skyline, a growing local economy and a fresh sense of confidence.
"Five years ago, we were at the bottom of a very daunting mountain called flood recovery," Corbett said. "Lots of questions and doubts prevailed. Can we recover? How do we recover?
"I believe today we can say we have recovered and the state of the city is one of confidence."
Corbett recalled his annual city address back in 2010, which took place in the former hotel ballroom over Third Street NE connected to the city’s arena. It was only a short time later, he said, that the ballroom and parking garages next to it were demolished to make way for the city’s new convention center and newly renovated arena and hotel.
Wednesday’s annual event at the convention center, which was sponsored by the League of Women Voters Linn County, marked a return of the State of the City address to the city’s downtown event facilities for the first time since Corbett’s first State of the City Address.
"There have been many changes in Cedar Rapids over these five years," he said. "We have a new library, new central fire station, a renovated Paramount and this new (convention) facility. "… Our skyline has, indeed, changed. But I believe the most important change has been in the attitude in our community."
Corbett talked of Cedar Rapids as a place to be and a place to move to, not a place to be from.
One sign that the city is moving beyond the Flood of 2008 is the time the mayor spent applauding the day-to-day work of city departments in matters unrelated to flood recovery.
A city that had experienced sanitary sewer backups more than 350 times a year in the 1990s, today averages only 24 a year, and in 2013, the city set a record of 124 days without a single sewer backup, the mayor said.
Corbett, 53, who is partial to quotes from pop musicians from his younger years, built the theme of his speech around the song, "Takin’ Care of Business."
"That’s how a community builds confidence — by taking care of business every day, but doing the work required to make a city and the services it provides successful," he said.
The mayor spent time applauding the effort of the city, the Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency and local business City Carton in diverting what he said was 42 percent of the city’s solid waste from the landfill via recycling, composting, turning shingles into asphalt and other ventures.
At the same time, he made no mention of the brewing prospect of a competition for those recyclables with a new company, Fiberight, which has plans to open up a recycling and waste transfer operation in Marion.
The mayor also said the city’s "Open for Business" strategy, which has featured economic incentives for companies willing to build and invest in the city, has led to economic development victories. He noted Rockwell Collins's new three-year lease to keep a piece of its Cedar Rapids in the downtown; United Fire Group’s purchase of the American Building next door to it downtown; and Auxiant’s plan to renovate and to move into the former Chamber of Commerce building. General Mills, Diamond V Mills, West Side Trucking and Fleck Beverage are all expanding, he said.
Corbett said 2013 was a momentous year for flood protection and for city streets.
He said the city secured $264 million over 20 years in a new state funding program for flood protection — a funding program conceived in part by Corbett — and is poised to receive another $70 million or so in federal funding.
"Cedar Rapids will have flood protection on both sides of the river," he said. "The City Council has taken care of business by never giving up on flood protection."
He thanked voters for approving a 10-year renewal of the city’s 1-percent local-option sales tax to fix streets.
"We are embarking on the most ambitious road repair and construction program the city has ever experienced," he said.
Corbett ended his speech, saying the city still has its challenges.
By way of example, he recounted how ESPN sportscaster Mike Golic had covered a sporting event in Iowa City in December and then got snowed in at the Cedar Rapids airport. The next morning, his co-host on the Mike and Mike in the Morning show on ESPN, asked listeners for suggestions of what Golic could do in Cedar Rapids.
"Your town is getting trashed on the radio," Corbett said a friend of his told him in a text message. "… By your own citizens."
The old faithful — Cedar Rapids as the "city of five smells" from its days with a hog-slaughtering plant close to downtown — was among one of the comments.
"Is this really how we want to portray ourselves to the rest of the world?" Corbett said.
He said poking fun at "ourselves" is fine in small doses, but it can leave a bad impression if overdone."Does that matter?" he asked. "I say it does. That is why today I am proclaiming that we are no longer the city of five smells. … My challenge to you is to start portraying Cedar Rapids in a more positive way. … That’s the business you can take care of."