An Iowa Success Story
March 13, 2020 | An Iowa success story
In the midst of one of the worst natural disasters the city has ever seen, there were fleeting thoughts of Cedar Rapids never really recovering. It was a scary and devastating time for Iowa’s second-most populated area. Ron Corbett certainly remembers the feelings of dread permeating throughout the community. As a state politician who went on to serve as mayor of Cedar Rapids in 2009, Corbett has stark memories of that time.
In June 2008, the Cedar River, which runs directly through downtown Cedar Rapids, crested at a record-high level of more than 31 feet — the previous record was 20 feet. Water caused substantial damage throughout the city. Estimates say the flood penetrated 14% of Cedar Rapids. More than 18,000 residents were dislocated and 310 city facilities were damaged. Miraculously, there were no deaths.
What came in the immediate aftermath of the disaster was certainly shock, but also unity. The community at large pulled together and looked to rebuild. Now, 12 years later, Cedar Rapids is an example of a city that not only recovered, but actually improved.
“You wonder if you’re ever going to be able to recover,” said Corbett, now the business retention and expansion strategist with the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. “It took about 18 months before we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Since then we’ve seen continued growth year after year. A lot of people say that momentum is hard to get. We’ve been careful not to lose that.”
IMPROVING, NOT REBUILDING
The 2008 flood was certainly devastating, causing about $6 billion in economic and physical damage in the Cedar Rapids area. Flooding throughout the Midwest that year was the worst natural disaster in United States history by total cost. What made it worse was the economic recession.
But Cedar Rapids also saw the flood as an opportunity. The city had a chance to find new and unique ways to rebuild, to improve on what was working and reimagine what wasn’t.
“As awful as the flood of 2008 was for our community — and I was in the trenches helping coordinate Collins’ corporate and employee response and recovery efforts — I don’t think we would be where we are as a community today had the disaster not happened,” said Cindy Dietz, associate director of state government relations with Collins Aerospace, one of the largest employers in Cedar Rapids. “The flood literally wiped the slate clean — especially in the downtown area — and forced the community into action to revitalize the area.”
Months after the flood hit and initial recovery efforts dwindled, city leadership was focused on its vision of improvement. In the years since, investment crossed into the billions of dollars. Big new projects include the new downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library ($45 million), the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids ($162 million), and the expansion and move uphill for the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library ($28 million). The new NewBo City Market, a riverside market district, is a huge draw for Cedar Rapids. New downtown housing and a college district with nearby Coe College provides more buzz around the city. And these projects only scratch the surface.
Improvements weren’t just completed on a large scale. Corbett remembers talking to community members after the flood. He talked with a woman whose house was almost completely wiped out by water damage. During a tour of her new home, Corbett noticed a glow appearing on the woman’s face as she showed him the kitchen. She had rebuilt it just the way she wanted.
“It was almost like starting over,” Corbett said. “She had to make it better, so she did. That was really the viewpoint that the people of Cedar Rapids had over the last 10 years. Why build it the way it was when we have a chance to make it better? That momentum continues as we go forward.”
A VISION FOR THE FUTURE
Today, Cedar Rapids continues to progress. Building upon the growth after the flood, the area is advancing at a breakneck pace. According to the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, more than $1.9 billion of investments in 157 different projects have been made in the community from 2016 to 2020. In the last fiscal year alone, the city issued $340 million in building permits, which was down from $676 million the year before, an all-time record, said Mayor Brad Hart.
Hart added that the improvements overwhelmingly came from private dollars.
“It really is remarkable,” he said. “It’s been really exciting to see how far we’ve come. All this construction keeps happening, and we keep getting all these accolades. This wasn’t a reincarnation by any means, but it was kind of this reinventing of ourselves.”
Cedar Rapids’ vision for the future is certainly reason for optimism as well. The Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance has released its plan for the next decade of growth in the area. The focus is on new schools, infrastructure, water improvements and water utility projects. The hope is that investments will spur more job growth, workforce retention and local prosperity.
Flood protection is an integral part of the plan. To avoid a disaster like 2008 — and the near-repeat in 2016 — the report calls for $550 million of investment in projects such as higher walls, roller gates, pump stations and more. Improving flood protection will not only give local business owners and residents peace of mind, but it will actually lower operating costs.
“This is not a small issue,” Hart said. “It will allow these businesses to stop paying flood insurance. Some of them are paying upwards of $50,000 per year, so if they can turn around and spend that money on expansion, to pay higher wages, hire more people or replace equipment, that’s a huge economic impact.”
Because of the extensive infrastructure buildouts, Hart said there will be about 100 acres around the river to develop into additional amenities. There are plans in the works to boost recreation opportunities in the area.
In addition to flood protection, the vision calls for $1.1 billion on transportation projects, $350 million in school construction projects, $300 million in wastewater and sewer projects, and $275 million in water utility projects.
Cedar Rapids has seen its biggest industry, manufacturing, thrive in the last decade as well. The sector employs about 20,000 people in the area — about 13% of jobs. That’s compared with 5% for Des Moines and 12% in the Quad Cities. Manufacturing jobs also make up 25% of all income in Cedar Rapids. Perhaps most exciting is how many people stay in the sector. At 3.6%, manufacturing has the lowest turnover rate of any industry in Cedar Rapids.
“A lot of people don’t realize the number of manufacturing jobs we have here,” Corbett said. “These jobs are higher-paying jobs, and we’re really proud of our manufacturing heritage.”
That has also caused a need for workforce. Iowa’s unemployment ticked just above 2.5% earlier this year — near record lows — and manufacturing has been one of the hardest sectors hit. Community leaders are looking at ways to attract and retain workers.
“Cedar Rapids will need to learn how to adapt to an increasingly diverse population in order to become a place people want to live and work,” Dietz said. “Are we a welcoming place for all people? Do our city services support non-English speakers? I believe the communities who are thinking about these issues now will be best positioned for growth.”
The path forward for Cedar Rapids seems clearer than ever. That’s thanks to the many community leaders who stepped up after the devastating 2008 floods and helped create a thriving community.
Cedar Rapids is a true Iowa success story.
“Some people lost their family homes and they’ll feel like they’ve never recovered,” Hart said. “But anyone that didn’t have that kind of experience would say that Cedar Rapids is a much stronger, much more diverse, much more exciting community than ever before because we just didn’t build it back like it was before.”
READY TO IMPRESS
Cedar Rapids will showcase its story when it welcomes business leaders from across the state for ABI’s Taking Care of Business Conference on June 9-11. The last time the conference was held in Cedar Rapids was 2014, and things have clearly changed for the better.
Dietz, who is the current chair of the ABI board of directors, said the NewBo City Market was just beginning then. Today, that district is considered a must-see destination, with shops and vendors lining the streets. Downtown Cedar Rapids, where the convention center is located, has also been thriving, with many new restaurants and attractions. The McGrath Amphitheatre hosts a variety of entertainment options near the river.
“There is so much to see and do in the heart of Cedar Rapids and out into the neighborhoods, and I want people from other parts of Iowa to appreciate all that we have to offer,” Dietz said.
Hart feels the same. He raved about the city’s new public library, which was opened in 2013 after the previous structure was destroyed in the floods. It’s a marvelous downtown building focused on sustainability. It’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum certified and has won awards for its outreach into the community. For those who want to go off the beaten path a bit, the Cedar Rapids area also has miles of walking, hiking and biking trails.
Whatever attendees decide to do while in Cedar Rapids, its clear city leadership is excited to show off all the great amenities. It’s a special place, and many of the attractions are relatively close together, making the experience all the more fruitful.
“I think there’s a vibe people need to experience,” Hart said. “I think people will come and enjoy all we have to offer, and, for the most part, all of it is within walking distance.”