Cedar Rapids, downtown group to improve downtown building fronts

By Rick Smith, The Gazette

CEDAR RAPIDS — Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover.

That’s part of the impetus behind a proposed initiative to provide grants to building owners and businesses to spruce up their facades.

Doug Neumann, executive vice president of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, said such a face-improvement program was first devised back in 2006 and 2007 for the downtown only to be set aside when the 2008 flood hit.

That the idea has resurfaced now is a testament to the city’s recovery from disaster, he said.

“I don’t view it that anything is overly dilapidated or anything like that,” Neumann said. “I view it as an evolution in our recovery where people are really starting to look for the finishing touches and the modernization and the enhancement of some of these buildings.”

Jasmine Almoayed, the city of Cedar Rapids’ economic development liaison, told the City Council Development Committee this week that the program calls for the city to contribute $50,000 to the facade-improvement program to match what the downtown property organization, a Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District (SSMID), is contributing. In any given facade fixup, 50 percent of the cost will come from the property owner. The owner can receive up to $100 a lineal foot for a project.

Neumann said a city block is about 300 feet long, which would qualify a single property owner for up to $30,000 for exterior enhancements. But he said the program really expects to provide a series of $5,000 to $10,000 grants and some even smaller.

City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said he favored a mechanism so no one or two grants take up most of the improvement fund.

Several property owners have expressed an interest, including Armstrong Development Co., owner of the Armstrong Building, and Theatre Cedar Rapids, Neumann said. He said the SSMID board approved its share of the program funding in July, and property owners have been awaiting the city’s participation in the program to formally apply.

The City Council’s Development Committee backed the idea this week, and the full City Council is expected to endorse it Tuesday.

Neumann said Theatre Cedar Rapids is interested in adding exterior lighting to beef up the appeal of its building at First Avenue SE and Third Street SE.

“Whether it’s a property owner that needs to update some outdated features or one that wants to do some visual enhancements like exterior lighting, the program is going to help both of those,” Neumann said.

Almoayed said properties in Kingston Village (between the Cedar River and Third Street SW) across the Cedar River from downtown are members of the downtown SSMID and can compete for grants.

The city of Iowa City is into the second year of economic-development program, which includes partial grants and interest-free loans for facade improvements and other improvements.

Neumann said facade improvement programs have been successful across the nation, and the Cedar Rapids one will be, too.

In the past, the city has provided similar kinds of grants in Czech Village.

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