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Rebuilding Cedar Rapids, Iowa

posted on January 22, 2009 at 5:19 PM

The challenges of the floods of 2008 forced many adjustments on the governments of Cedar Rapids and Linn County. One of the more visible changes was the relocation of city and county officies to Westdale Mall. 

The Linn County Administration building had taken on water in the record floods and had been operating on the second floor since June. A struggling shopping mall had ample space and abundant parking. If nothing else, the floods have provided the local governments with an exercise in developing efficiencies-- making do with existing resources. 

Les Beck, Linn County Planning Development Director: "We're at Westdale Mall and we're here because of the flood in June. Our building in Cedar Rapids was flooded and so all of the county offices in that building had to relocate."

Linn County Planning and Development director Les Beck gives a tour of his office space, the old Walden Books store at Westdale Mall on Cedar Rapids' southwest side.

This is his old office space. Just blocks off the river, in the 500 foot flood zone. For now, the Linn County Administration building is vacant.

As is Cedar Rapids City hall. It was surrounded by water during the flood and offices were spread out across the city.

The Cedar Rapids School District also moved to temporary headquarters near Kingston Stadium.

All three are planning for the future and that may include a place together on what's being called co-location.

Brian Fagan, Cedar Rapids City Council/Mayor Pro Tem "In light of the flood because so many governmental agencies and entities were displaced we had an opportunity to re-examine how we deliver services, how we located facilities, and where we locate facilities and how we can work together and that's what this co-location project is about."

That could take on many faces from one large building for all. Or even a complex with all three located in the same area.

The flood forced a few agencies to work together in their new mall location providing a try-out of co-location. The mall was less than 50% capacity, so space wasn't an issue. The city's code enforcement office moved close to the county's planning and building office.

Les Beck:  "One of the things we learned is that people probably don't have a real clear understanding a difference between Linn County government and Cedar Rapids government. 

One of the things we learned is that we do have some common ties. We do enjoy or can benefit from some face to face interactions to learn from each other about how handle common situations. So I think there's definitely a benefit from that. I think it helps to have face to face conversations as opposed to emails or picking up the phone and making a phone call."

That relationship building may help in a possible future marriage.

Les Beck: "I think there would be benefits. I'm not sure that it would be a significant benefit to have everyone under the same roof. So one of the concepts is separate buildings on the same campus. And I think that's certainly feasible. It still would allow for some closer interaction but it may cut down on the confusion as to where the public needs to go when they need services."

And sharing space could help share costs and improve efficiencies. The sharing idea was under discussion in the region, but was seen as a long term plan. Then the flood changed the timetable and that discussion is a lot more serious now and includes sustainability issues.

Brian Fagan: "But it also has to be in how we deliver services and can the systems that we have in place right now survive? Given the current economic conditions but also give them the competitiveness and the tax rate structures that we have in this state. So we have to look at does the business model that local government provide right now make sense? And is it sustainable and I think our conclusion is there's room for improvement and there's room to share resources."

Beck: "Well I think you know maybe some of the initial cost upfront might be high but in the long -- in the long run there, you would think there would be so-some cost efficiencies in having a co-location. I think mainly the benefits would be from a customer service standpoint that when someone needs government services whether it's city or county they can come to a location and ah, and get whatever they need done on a single trip."

But that single trip could be a little overwhelming.

Community input is being sought on the plan. A telephone survey was conducted in the fall. Next up is stakeholder meetings to show off possible designs.

That is part of the efficiencies the three hope to cash in on, but what that looks like is still anyone's best guess. It’s likely, the future location will be away from the mall setting that Westdale provided.

Brian Fagan: "The feedback that I get is that the idea is great but maybe that isn't the best model for it.  But it's that concept that we have to pursue and that concept that was introduced to our community in a very tangible way because of the flood."

Tags: budgets Cedar Rapids communities economy finance floods Iowa jobs politics schools


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