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FEMA Rejects Plans for Recreation Center in Time Check

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Some of the youngsters that might have used a new northwest Cedar Rapids recreation center may be grown up and gone by the time it gets built.

In the latest chapter in the rec center saga, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has informed the state and city that it has rejected the City Council's August decision to replace the flood-ruined, now-demolished Time Check Recreation Center by putting a new $3 million facility at the same place in the 100-year flood plain where June 2008 floodwaters climbed 14 feet high.

In a letter to the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division, FEMA's regional office says that federal rules require the city to build replacement facilities outside the 100-year flood plain if "a practicable alternative" exists.

The FEMA letter, signed by Thomas Costello, FEMA's recovery director in Kansas City, Mo., notes that the city of Cedar Rapids in past correspondence with FEMA identified two sites in Ellis Park outside the 100-year flood plain as possible locations for a replacement recreation center.

"As such, replacement of the facility in its original location or any other location in the 100-year flood plain cannot be approved," Costello states.

Joe O'Hern, the city's executive director of development services and its flood-recovery chief, on Friday said he would consult the City Council on what to do next.

Council member Don Karr, who grew up in the Time Check neighborhood, on Friday thought the city simply could elevate the new recreation center above the 100-year flood plain and keep it where the council most recently has decided to build it, in Time Check Park next to the spot there where the old recreation center had been.

O'Hern, though, noted that FEMA has cited a federal executive order that requires the site to be "outside" the 100-year flood plain, not "above" it.

Council member Monica Vernon said she had the same two goals in mind for the recreation center site, if it has to move, that she's had before. She said she wants the center to help with commercial redevelopment along Ellis Boulevard NW and to back up to city-owned park area that can complement recreation center programs. Much of the Time Check area between the Cedar River and Ellis Boulevard NW is now open space where flood-damaged homes once stood.

Linda Seger, president of the Northwest Neighbors Neighborhood Association, aid the city should consider appealing FEMA's ruling on the rec center site.

Seger added that it is important that the recreation center be built next to Ellis Boulevard NW to help bring the boulevard back to life. Problems in getting the center built shouldn't be grounds for moving it to another part of the city, she said.

Rebuilding the northwest Cedar Rapids rec center has turned into a political football as the composition of the City Council has changed.

A first City Hall-appointed site selection committee had as one of its marching orders to pick a site outside the 100-year flood plain. For that reason, the first committee identified a couple spots in Ellis Park on Ellis Boulevard NW, about which city officials then wrote to FEMA to get the federal agency's reaction.

Seger's neighborhood association and residents living near Ellis Park both came out against putting the recreation center in Ellis Park.

Then this year, new council members Ann Poe and Scott Olson, both who said in their campaigns that they would vote against putting the center in Ellis Park, replaced two council members who chose not to seek re-election who favored an Ellis Park site.

A second City Hall site selection committee was named with five council members on it and the focus shifted to sites, even those in the 100-year flood plain, that would help with Ellis Boulevard NW's revival. The committee decided to move the final site two blocks off the boulevard and back into Time Check Park, which the city owned before the 2008 flood, after it became unclear if the city could build on newly vacant lots purchased with federal buyout money.

The council approved the new site in August.

In voting to keep the rec center out of Ellis Park, the council never mentioned the Cedar Rapids Parks and Recreation Master Plan, which the council unanimously approved in April 2010 and which called for putting recreation centers in three "signature" city parks, Ellis, Noelridge and Jones. The city paid $212,999 for the park and recreation study.

Vernon on Friday said she disagrees with the piece of the master plan that calls for recreation centers in major parks.