Monthly Archives: February 2008

Messing with Visitors

State lawmakers backed away from a proposal this week that would have removed stickers from gas pumps promoting fuel blended with ethanol. Backers argued that out-of-state drivers leery of ethanol might use the cheaper corn-based blend if it wasn’t labeled.

Critics panned the idea. But I think they were on to something. Here are five other proposals for messing with out-of-state visitors that I think the Legislature should consider:

1. Prank DOT Road Maps — Show only odd-numbered highways.

2. Set secret “non-native” speed limit at 50 mph.

3. Require visitors to purchase Iowa State University season football tickets to use rest area bathrooms.

4. Create mandatory I-80 corn maze detour.

5. Line our borders with casinos to fleece…oops, already in place.


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Friday Mailbag — Naysayers Unite

On Tuesday I columnized that “critics, cranks and government minimalists” are already taking shots at Cedar Rapids’ latest downtown/riverfront development effort. I said I have a soft spot for the naysayers, but I can’t join the local battle cry that nothing should happen in this town until all the streets are fixed. I argued that healthy cities patch the potholes and offer amenities like trails, etc.

The naysayers, however, don’t have a soft spot for me. I received a number of letters, some twice as long as the column I wrote, calling me a naive downtown latte slurper.

Dan Legrand was first:

“I don’t consider myself to be a critic, crank or government minimalist as your article would suggest would be the only choices if you disagree with any of the downtown development ideas. I think every taxpaying citizen should be allowed to give their opinions on those projects including those who do not agree with them. The city seems to operate with the theory that if you build it they will come and that is not always the case in Cedar Rapids, as we have seen.

“Why does it have to all be centered around downtown anyway?Shouldn’t the whole city be important?

“I am not sure why you think anyone who has a differing opinion has to be tamed. Couldn’t it also be the other way around?

“I would rather have the city support projects that the majority of the people who live and work here are supporting, not a project based on an idea from a consultant who does not live here.”

Steve Hanken also took issue:

“There are lots of reasons why so many naysayers are speaking up in this town, and most of it is based on the track record established on how things have gone in the past. Since we changed the form of governance in this city, many of us had hoped for improvements in services that have been lacking for years, streets being one. Unfortunately, it looks like we only turned a page on the very same book, same old story, same old verse,” Hanken wrote, before describing a long litany of failed and flawed development efforts.

“I have lived here over thirty years, and as long as I have been here it has been from the very first “all roads lead to down town” sort of mentality. Never mind all the movie houses left, never mind that all the retailers left, never mind that the only people who stayed down town were the money people, bankers, accountants, lawyers, and others of like kind and quality. Is it any wonder the only major area with a incremental financing district is down town? It certainly feels like all the rest of the city is screwed over by this financing plan that sets aside the county taxes on the down town while the rest of us have to pick up the slack, especially when it has been going on for over twenty years. While our increases in taxes go to pay for the county services and city government, their increases go to brick the side walks and change the down town street lighting ( a total of three times since I have lived here I know) or fix their streets and build them sky walks. So, I wouldn’t look down my nose at a person who wants to know why the hell their streets are so poor, and filled with chuck holes. They may not realize it, but they are saying loud and clear the fundamentals of a city are being overlooked for a handful of people who intend to rip them off down town. We may not have all the facts, but the track record of failure speaks for itself and I haven’t even mentioned several other things that shouldn’t have happened.”

Good points, really, but I still argue that the definition of urban “fundamentals” is rapidly changing. Cedar Rapids can adapt and compete or be paralyzed in never-ending bickering over past failures.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t critically assess every detail in the development plan and raise hell if the development dreamers sell us a bill of goods. I’m just saying we shouldn’t instantly bury every proposal with bilge and historical baggage and distrust.

But what do I know? I’m still new.


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Beware of Gay Millionaires

From Radio Iowa’s OK Henderson:

A group pushing for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in Iowa is charging that key Democrats in the legislature are getting campaign contributions from wealthy gay rights activists. Chuck Hurley of the Iowa Family Policy Center says the money’s being funneled into campaign accounts set up by the Democrats who lead the Iowa House and Senate.

“A dozen or so out-of-state millionaires, in some cases I think billionaires, have sent several hundred thousand dollars in campaign cash,” Hurley says. “These donors have been identified as longterm financial supporters of efforts to block constitutional amendments in other states.”  

This is a shocking development. I thought only ridiculously rich right-wingers had the resources to play politics in any state of their choosing. Who let gays and lesbians in on this capitalism thing?

It’s sort of interesting that anyone would feel compelled to give Democrats money to stop the amendment. Dems already are paralyzed on this issue, free of charge. The only reason they want the judicial process to continue is they’re scared witless of the politics, not because anyone gives them money. 

Though gutless, Democrats did get in a few good lines.

House Democratic Leader Kevin McCarthy of Des Moines is accusing Hurley of being “hateful” by releasing the list of “homosexual” contributors. “You know, we should probably order scarlet letters and give them to Chuck Hurley so he can put them on people who (he), through his research, determines may be gay,” McCarthy says.

Gee, I sure love it when legislative leaders go all Nathaniel Hawthorne on someone.

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Enforcing Law is Difficult for Top Law Enforcer

The Des Moines Register reports today that Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller is willing to hand some of his authority to a new board the Legislature may create to enforce open meetings and records law.

It’s good news for the bill. But something Miller said was curious:

Miller said years-long concerns over conflicts of interest and scant enforcement by his office had little to do with his decision. Rather, he said, he determined it was not cost-effective to spend resources investigating the disputes, most of which came from smaller communities around the state.

“It’s difficult – and not very efficient – to enforce those laws in the 900 different cities and counties around the state,” he said.

So although it is efficient for Miller’s office to pursue national lawsuits against high-profile targets such as Microsoft, it’s too “difficult” to enforce state laws that guarantee Iowans have access to the deliberations of the government they supposedly run.

I get very tired of public officials who act like these laws are bothersome distractions that only mean something to pesky reporters and gadfly cranks. Without these laws, democracy doesn’t work, it’s that simple. These laws are among the most important on the books, and they’re certainly worth the time and energy of the state’s chief law enforcement officer and his staff.

I know looking into some local school board’s illegal meeting or sticking up for some small town nobodies who got screwed over by their city council isn’t as glamorous as jetting to Washington D.C. for a press conference, but it’s work that needs to be done.

I hope now the Legislature will hand the job over to someone who wants to do it.


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Baffled in English Glen

I live among the beige, gray and beige-ish gray homes in the English Glen subdivision on the north side of Marion. It’s the sort of neighborhood I made fun of when I was younger. I’d never live in the cornfield-turned-sprawl, I thought back then.

Think again pal. You’re home.

Or am I? On Wednesday, I became even more of a suburban caricature. I turned into the wrong driveway on my street, evidently unable to pick out my own gray vinyl house from all the others. And I was stone cold sober.

The younger me is doubled up somewhere, laughing. So was anyone who happened to look out their window on my block at that moment.

It was a tough life lesson. Next time, I’m going to push my garage door opener before I turn in.

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Got Rickets?

Health experts are warning sun-starved Iowans about the dangers of vitamin D deficiency, according to Radio Iowa:

“While the cold winter weather may put you in a bad mood and keep you indoors, one group says it can also have an adverse health impact. Tim Miller is a spokesman for the U.V. Foundation and says many people in Iowa and other Midwestern states aren’t getting enough sunlight.

“Miller says that results in vitamin D deficiency, which he says can lead to increased risk for colon, prostate and breast cancer, M.S. and an increase in children reporting rickets. Miller says there are a lot of remedies including supplements and tanning beds. He says the recommended level of vitamin D is one-thousand units per day.

“He says you can look on the side of the supplement bottle to see how much that is. Miller says one serving of salmon has 900 units, so that would cover a day. One glass of milk is 400 units, and five to seven minutes twice a week in a tanning bed would cover the need.”

My wife, our two children and our dog, Clover, stumbled out into the sunlight on Sunday morning, squinting at the giant, magical orb as we trudged around north Marion, where sidewalk clearing is, evidently, optional. For us, it was a last-ditch effort to stave off madness, but it turns out we also avoided a nasty case of rickets. Bonus.

Scurvy was already covered, thanks to the limes in my gin and tonic. And if there’s some disease cured by loudly swearing at falling snow, I’m also immune to that. Very immune.

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Favorite Bars

Note: This is a companion piece to my Sunday column. It is by no means a complete list. Please add to it liberally.  

Old School Dives

Alpine Tap Room, Des Moines
Small, dark joint on Ingersoll Ave. During my Drake days, the budget-minded drinker could get Hamms in a can at a very reasonable price. Many hours spent in comfortable, vintage booths.

West End Pub, Des Moines
Did much of my college drinking at this bar on the east end of the Drake campus. I haven’t been there in years, but I bet they still serve giant Long Islands and play “Margaritaville” 20 times a night.

Thumbs, Ames
Classic dive just a few blocks northeast of campus town is a throwback with pool, darts, lots of beer selections and big drinks. There’s a little concrete walled patio outside with all the charm of Beirut.

Miles Inn, Sioux City
Good old-school brick neighborhood bar known for Charlie Boys, a great tavern sandwich, and frosty schooners of beer.

Homy Inn, Omaha
My kind of bar. Last time I was there the walls are covered with old Omaha World-Herald front pages chronicling wars, grisly crimes and the like. The ceiling was covered in a mosaic of old restaurant menus. They serve warm peanuts in dog bowls and you can order pizza from a place across the street, run get it and eat it at the bar.

The American Legion, Roland, Iowa.
The only bar in Roland boasts the coldest beer in Iowa and has T-shirts to prove it. It’s a great small town bar that doubles as a community meeting place and serves a big dinner crowd on many Friday nights.

Gone but not forgotten

The Duck Blind, Des Moines
I spent many hours drinking beer, eating heaping plates of nachos and playing darts at the Duck Blind, which had fireplaces and other hunting-lodge stuff. It was gutted and converted into a soulless place named Zimm’s after I graduated.

Boomer’s, Fort Dodge
Last I knew, the bar down the street from the Fort Dodge Messenger was no more. It was a good place for us to commiserate about working at one of America’s great newspapers. It’s also the only bar where I’ve ever seen a knife pulled.

The Jolly Acre, in the middle of nowhere north of Pinckneyville, IL
The Jolly Acre, now closed I’m told, served me my first can of Stag, a popular beer round my wife’s home stomping grounds in Pinckneyville. The Jolly was a good example of the seemingly nameless, cinder-block beer and whisky bars that are everywhere you look in Southern Illinois. With cement floors and drains at one end, clean up’s a breeze.

My favorite CR local bars, so far

Little Bohemia — What can you say, the place is damn near perfect. Good food, a cranky but skilled bartender the night I was there and priceless local color.

Irish Democrat — A must-visit spot with great food. I think every city has a signature bar and you can make a good argument that the ID is Cedar Rapids’

Mahoney’s — Lots of great beer choices, big screens for sports, pool and live music all jammed into a great neighborhood bar that’s actually in a neighborhood.

Bill’s Drinking Establishment — The downtown Marion joint has become my favorite Friday after work hangout. The name alone would land it on my list.


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