Just a few weeks ago, we argued in this space that “Cedar Rapids can and should do more to protect our cultural heritage.” We insisted historic preservation should be much more than an afterthought as the city evaluates development projects and awards incentives. In the past year alone, 17 historically significant structures have been demolished to make way for new development.
But Tuesday, for those of us demanding to see our local history preserved rather than flattened, there was some good news at City Hall.
City Council members voted 8-0 to negotiate public incentives for a $50 million development project downtown proposed by Quad Cities-based Heart of America Group.
The project calls for transforming the historic former Guaranty Bank building into a 76-room hotel with a steakhouse on its ground floor. Next door, much of the historic World Theater will be converted into a lobby and gathering space for a newly constructed 126-room hotel and rooftop lounge.
On the same block, a third historic building, which once housed the Dragon restaurant, will be secured and mothballed in anticipation of future development.
So instead of razing three irreplaceable buildings, Heart of America, led by its president, Mike Whalen, is incorporating them into its development. It’s a mix of history and progress we believe should become a model for future projects in the city’s core.
“I think it will stand out among hospitality projects in the entire country,” Whalen told the City Council. “This is not a drive-by. It will be a go-to place.”
Incentives could total $13.6 million, including $10.6 million in tax rebates over 20 years and a $3 million payment upon completion of the project. A large investment, to be sure.
But the city gets a signature project that will provide new amenities, including more downtown hotel rooms that officials say could help the city attract larger conventions and other events. It will generate hotel/motel, property and business district tax revenues.
And the project is a prime example of how the city and developers both can preserve and prosper by incorporating, rather than demolishing, historic structures.
Open for business need not mean cue the wrecking ball. It’s a lesson that should be brought to bear on future projects seeking public incentives.