Mayor Ron Corbett Works to Move Cedar Rapids Forward
By Rick Smith, Reporter
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - It’s the presidential election season, not a municipal election year in Iowa. But that doesn’t mean that Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett isn’t churning away at City Hall with an eye to keeping the city’s bottom line in the black and the city moving ahead and not falling behind.
With his third year in the mayor’s seat coming to a close, Corbett doesn’t look or sound as if he is looking for the exit ramp.
Corbett, a former speaker of the Iowa House, already is talking of the upcoming session of the Iowa Legislature in January, thinking of what strategies he might use to make sure that the Iowa Legislature doesn’t decimate city budgets if and when it cuts property taxes on commercial and industrial property owners.
The city may negotiate only one-year contracts with its employee unions because of the worry of what state-mandated cuts in commercial and industrial property-tax revenue to cities might do, particularly to a regional industrial powerhouse such as Cedar Rapids, he said.
“Certainly the city of Cedar Rapids has expressed its concern about the commercial property-tax reform issue,” Corbett said. “We’re certainly worried about what that revenue stream means to local governments.”
There are other battles for Corbett, some much closer to home and a near-constant siege.
Corbett and City Manager Jeff Pomeranz quietly have taken trips out of state to corporate headquarters trying to court companies to locate to or expand in Cedar Rapids. But in today’s chilly economic climate, Corbett said the bigger focus is not what new jobs might be coming in the front door.
“One of the shifts from the past is … everybody knows about rolling out the red carpet and trying to recruit businesses to your community, but we’ve been losing companies out the back door to other communities,” the mayor said.
Corbett recalled it was no easy task to convince Intermec Technologies Corp., which was seeking to relocate, to, firstly, stay in the region, next, stay in Cedar Rapids and then keep the company downtown in a new building.
An incentive package convinced Intermec to build and stay put downtown, he said.
OUT THE BACK DOOR
Much of this battling, Corbett said, is within the metro area, and the name of Hiawatha, Cedar Rapids’s next-door neighbor with Interstate 380 running through it, seems never to be far from Corbett’s thoughts.
“Intermec was looking at places in Hiawatha, and we didn’t want to lose them out of downtown,” he said. “But we certainly didn’t want to lose them from Cedar Rapids. This gets back to the ‘back door.’ In a year, one or two companies can leave — but over the course of a decade, it starts to add up.”
As a result, Corbett is set to ask the city council to provide incentives to local developer Joe Ahmann for his proposed higher-end office and retail development, called the Fountains, at Edgewood Road NE and Blairs Ferry Road NE, near the city’s border with Hiawatha. The city, the mayor suggested, is about to lose a business to Hiawatha because it doesn’t have enough office options such as what Ahmann is proposing for the higher-end market.
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When it comes to Hiawatha, the mayor is still willing to talk about the celebrated battle he had with that city back in 2010 when the web-hosting company Go Daddy decided to expand its presence in the metro area.
Corbett still believes the news coverage had the wrong focus — much of the attention centered on his late-inning effort to change Go Daddy’s mind on a Hiawatha location when, in fact, Go Daddy had been operating in Cedar Rapids at the time. In a sense, Corbett wasn’t trying to steal a Hiawatha employer, but steal a Hiawatha employer that had stolen it from Cedar Rapids, he said.
“We didn’t win that one, but I didn’t lose heart,” Corbett said. “I didn’t go to the locker room and cry. We kept working just as hard.”
In the months after that, he and others were able to convince the city’s largest employer, Rockwell Collins, to move a piece of its operation into downtown Cedar Rapids, he added.
Even so, these battles in the metro area and beyond are sufficiently constant that the city of Cedar Rapids has just completed a City Hall reorganization, creating a Department of Development Services to more aggressively focus on economic development.
Corbett credited the move to City Manager Jeff Pomeranz, who came to Cedar Rapids two years ago after 12 years of economic-development triumphs in West Des Moines.
“We’ve certainly learned some lessons, and that’s why Jeff’s reorganized,” Corbett explained. “We’re going to bring someone on to wear out the shoe leather, going business to business as it relates to their future needs and growth.”
Corbett, born in Erie, Pa., and a Cornell College graduate, has won nine races for elective office — seven legislative races, a legislative primary and a mayoral race — without defeat.
But his nearly three years as mayor has brought some personal defeats, some small such as the Go Daddy fight, but none larger than the first referendum attempt in May 2011 to extend the city’s local-option sales tax to help pay for flood protection.
On that vote, Corbett was the public face and voice for the tax extension, only to see the measure lose by 221 votes from among the 31,932 cast.
“Certainly when a position you advocate is rejected, it doesn’t make you feel good the next morning,” the mayor said. “I put a lot of heart and soul into that effort.
“After watching the devastation from the flood, and seeing the turmoil in the community and the disruption of people’s lives, I can’t think of anyone wanting to go through that again. That’s why I and others worked hard to get that passed.”
A second tax-extension vote went down to defeat in March 2012, though Corbett stayed in the background of the effort to get it passed.
He got up from that defeat, too, and along with others at City Hall, helped the city’s local legislative contingent pass a new state law that provides state funding for flood protection to cities who can come up matching dollars. Corbett said Cedar Rapids will meet with the state about funding for some flood protection once the new state rules are in place early next year.
“So you pick up the pieces,” the mayor said.
“We didn’t walk away from the whole effort of flood protection. We still want flood protection. We still need flood protection.”
Among the biggest changes for the city’s elected officials, Corbett said, has been the creation of City Council committees in the last two years. The committees have helped to spread power to all nine council members and have helped open up City Hall debate to the public.
Before the committees — for which he credits City Manager Pomeranz with pushing — council members would meet in private in groups small enough to not require a public meeting, he explained.
Even so, council members have only so much time, and he does run ideas by individual council members and they by him to see what ideas might get enough traction for council discussion and possible approval. He pointed to an initiative to create a City Hall historic preservation trust fund and another to better regulate nuisance properties that had their start in hallways and now are making their way forward.
The flashiest public issue that Cedar Rapids and Linn County will be dealing in the next year will be the prospect of a gaming casino in the Cedar Rapids area. A group of investors hopes for a countywide vote on the matter in May or August 2013.
Corbett was quick to note that the investor group, led by Cedar Rapids businessman Steve Gray, is responsible for the casino project, not City Hall.
But don’t think for a minute that Corbett isn’t working behind the scenes to help persuade the investors about the best place to put a casino should they get the go-ahead by local voters and the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.
Most casinos, he noted, come with a hotel and some sort of event center, and he quickly added that the city of Cedar Rapids already owns a hotel and arena, both under renovation, and a new convention center, under construction, in downtown.
“I can see some synergies between what Steve Gray and his investor group are proposing and the city’s existing facilities,” Corbett said. “I don’t think it makes much sense for the gaming operation to duplicate everything the city already has.
“… The location could affect us in a positive way because of what Cedar Rapids has put in place, but potentially it could affect us in a negative way if it’s located in an area where the synergies aren’t capitalized on.”
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