Here’s County Auditor Joel Miller’s take on Westdale:
Yesterday, I talked to Supervisor Langston and we discussed Westdale Mall. I shared some of these thoughts with her:1> Lease space in Westdale Mall for the next 4-5 years. By the end of the lease, whatever is going to happen with the residential and commercial landscape Downtown and near the river should be settled. Then and only then should the County consider acquiring land in the Downtown area. If the County acquires land before that period of time, we may take land off the market that could be utilized for better purposes by a tax paying entity.
2> Follow the example set by the Federal government’s use of Shepherd Mall (I wrongly told her Penn Square Mall) in Oklahoma City after the Federal Courthouse bombing. After the new Courthouse was built, most of the Feds moved out of the Mall, but the Mall survived because it had been revitalized by the Feds moving into it and paying rent for a period of time.
3> If you want to test out the co-location concept with the City and/or Cedar Rapids Schools, why not try it in Westdale before you think about constructing a building? What if you build a big building and find out the County, City, and/or Schools cannot get along? And while putting everybody in the same building does make it easier for the citizens to access services, e.g., county assessor and city assessor, the real savings to the taxpayer will only be realized if the various bodies come to an agreement to consolidate the overhead functions of government, e.g., IT, human resources, finance, budget, accounts payable, payroll, facilities, and other functions. Four Oaks of Iowa has already proven that one administrative group can fulfill the overhead functions for multiple organizations with separate missions. The difference is: one CEO is in charge of the overhead functions. Are the electeds / administrators in the City, County, and School willing to give up control for the common good? The recent frustration over the joint communications fiber network going back into service was not a good sign of teamwork.
These are the ideas I did not share with Supervisor Langston:
4> Relocate other administrative and services offices to the Mall. Prior to the flood, we had 13 major buildings for 800+ employees scattered around Cedar Rapids. Why not consolidate as many offices as possible into Westdale Mall, e.g., Public Health and Fillmore? And bring DHS over from the Iowa Building since we’re paying the rent for them to be in that space.
5> Sell the Witwer Building. The Downtown District wants more downtown housing and at least one downtown business has expressed interest in buying it.
6> Sell the Administrative Office Building. It’s time has come and gone and the last thing we should do is put the County Recorder and her priceless books back into a space that has been flooded three times in her memory. Penford has almost encircled the building, which unfortunately means they can probably name their own price if they want it. Who else would want the building except for a supplier/vendor of Penford’s?
I agree with Supervisor Langston on government ownership of the Mall, but we should look at the numbers before making a decision. To my knowledge, no one has looked at the numbers. And if they have, they have not discussed them in public.
As for plowing big parking lots and fixing roof leaks, see above comment regarding 13 buildings. And guess what, those 13 buildings all have parking lots and sidewalks which must be plowed by contractors/employees in the winter. And in the summer, the HVAC units must be maintained. The Witwer Building alone has a dozen HVAC units on the roof.
I agree that the County has no obligation to rescue the Mall. I don’t call paying market rate rent a rescue. Our obligation to Westdale Mall should be no greater or lesser than the obligation we have to the flood impacted homes and businesses. The Mall is not asking for a handout. In fact, the Mall gave us a handout by contributing space to the County from June through October 31st.
Obviously, Supervisor Langston feels the County has some obligation to flood impacted residents and businesses because the Board of Supervisors redirected funds from the Witwer Trust Fund to aid in flood relief. In addition, each member of the Board is a member of one of the Rebuild Iowa sub-committees and Supervisor Langston is a newly appointed member of the ERPC (economic recovery committee). Also of note, the County is a member of the Chamber of Commerce and provides financial support to Priority One, the economic development arm of the Chamber. The Board appears to be deeply interested and involved in the economic future of our community. Is Westdale a part of the problem or the solution? A part of the past or a part of the future?
I don’t have all of the answers, but I do have some ideas. And to date, the subject of the County’s long term future versus Westdale’s future has not been discussed in a public Board of Supervisor’s meeting. When I read quotes like the one above, I feel like decisions have already been made outside the public’s view. And that’s not how we’re supposed to be conducting the public’s business. That’s not how I conduct business.
Linn County Auditor