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High Praise for Convention Design; City Council Doesn't Blink at $8.6 Millon Budget Jump

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa With strong praise and with no blinking about cost, the City Council last night unanimously approved the design for the Cedar Rapids Convention Complex as well as an amended budget that takes the project from a $67-million one to a $75.64-million one months before actual demolition work begins at the site.

Mayor Ron Corbett has noted in the last couple weeks that the cost to acquire land and relocate tenants to make way for the new convention center had added perhaps $4 million to the cost of the project.

Last night, though, Chris Nations, a partner with the city's construction manager, Frew Nations Group, told the City Council that the project's $67-million budget represented a budget for a conceptual plan, not for the actual project. He noted that property acquisition and tenant relocation will cost $8 million, not the $3.5 million in the conceptual plan, and he said actual "hard" construction costs now will come in at $48 million, up $5.5 million from the conceptual budget. The new budget will reduce money for unexpected costs from $5 million to $3 million.

Nations noted, too, that the increased budget for the project did not increase sufficiently to allow the project to meet a City Council goal to be built with Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

Corbett was quick to note that the city has yet to seek money from local private sources to help with the project cost. He and John Frew, also a partner with Frew Nations Group, thought naming rights for the new venue might raise some funds for the project.

The city's commitment for a $67-million project has been $17 million to go along with a $35-million federal Economic Development Administration grant and a $15-million state I-JOBS grant. Corbett has suggested that the city pay its part of the cost by using hotel-motel tax revenue. In recent days, he has suggested using a portion of the city's local-option sales tax revenue as well.

Council member Monica Vernon called the Convention Complex "a great project" that will make the city "a beacon." She noted that the project which consists of upgrading the U.S. Cellular Center arena and building a new convention center next to it will move Cedar Rapids from the bottom of larger cities in Iowa to second in terms of convention and arena space.

Dan Thies, president/CEO of OPN Architects Inc. of Cedar Rapids, walked the council through a series of drawings of how the new Convention Complex will look, calling it "exciting", "beautiful" and "functional."

The drawings incorporate the Crowne Plaza Five Seasons Hotel, which is attached to the U.S. Cellular Center arena, into the overall project.

The city is trying to purchase the hotel from its creditors with a plan to renovate it at the same time as the Convention Complex is build. Costs related to the purchase and renovation of the hotel could run another $20 million. Corbett has said the city would sell revenue bonds to pay for the hotel renovation and pay the bonds off with hotel revenue over time.

Last night, the council, on a 6-2 vote, also agreed to have City Manager Jeff Pomeranz work to negotiate a project labor agreement for the Convention Center project. Contractors who do the work must pay union-scale wages, but the project labor agreement is intended to require contractors to use a certain amount of local labor.

Council members Pat Shey and Kris Gulick voted no, but it wasn't clear if they opposed such agreements or if they voted no because Shey's packet of council information had an agenda in it that had not been revised to include notice about the project labor agreement.

The Convention Complex is now slated for completion in February 2013.

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