It’s becoming more difficult for our Linn County Board of Supervisors to ignore that massive shopping mall on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids and the people who like doing county business there.
Oh, they’ve tried to give Westdale Mall the brushoff, the silent treatment. Sure, they say, the ailing mall is a fine temporary location for flood-damaged county offices, but a permanent commitment is out of the question. It’s not built for government. Its roof is too leaky. Its parking lot is too roomy. Its lumpy architecture is not a source of civic inspiration.
“I don’t think our obligation is to rescue the mall,” Supervisor Linda Langston said before the election.
When supervisors commissioned a pricey survey last month to gauge public opinion on where county offices should locate, the word “Westdale” was banished. Nothing to see here. Mall? What mall?
But then, earlier this week, Westdale’s owners offered to sell the mall to the county for $18.5 million and stoked the Westdale debate all over again. Supervisors listened, but said little. So now what?
Well, here’s a novel idea: Why don’t we just acknowledge that a sizable number of people in this county think Westdale is a good place for county offices and tackle the issue head on.
Let’s run the numbers and inspect the roof and measure the drapes and kick the tires until we have a crystal clear picture of exactly why Westdale might work or why it might be a boondoggle. A lot of people think Westdale is a real, live permanent option for gov ernment offices, and by ignoring that significant sentiment, our county leaders run the risk of looking as lost and out-of-touch as they did last winter during the pay raise debacle.
So how about earning those paychecks by grabbing the mall issue by the horns?
It’s no secret that most top government-types in this town would like to see a shiny new county-city-school district building rise triumphantly somewhere in the downtown area.
And they may be right that such a colocated center would be best for taxpayers in the long run and for efforts to bring downtown back better than ever. Westdale doesn’t fit into those plans.
They also may be right that it’s a bad idea for the county to go into retail leasing or the real estate development business. Maybe the asking price for Westdale is too high, its flaws are too costly to fix, and perhaps the risk for taxpayers is too great.
But it’s also possible a government commitment might be Westdale’s last chance. Could permanent public offices stabilize the mall and make its retail space and perimeter land more valuable and attractive for development? What’s the bigger risk, trying to save the mall or allowing it to flounder and fail? Anyone who thinks a private investor is going to ride into the middle of a recession and fill the mall with new stores has a very active imagination.
So basically, my point is there’s a whole lot we don’t know about our options, and our leaders don’t do us much of a service by shoving possibilities off the table before they’ve been thoroughly explored and debated.
We need objective information and analysis, not silence.