Some Downtown Cedar Rapids Businesses Won't Wait For Permanent Flood Control System

Jun 18, 2018

Ten years after floodwaters devastated downtown Cedar Rapids, many businesses have returned and some new ones have opened up. For some, that reinvestment was tied to the city’s commitment to build a permanent flood control system. But a decade later, businesses are still waiting for that protection. 

On a Friday afternoon, a steady stream of patrons passes through a little tavern called The Map Room in Downtown Cedar Rapids. It’s a burgers and beer kind of place, with yellowing maps from owners Christina and Mitch Springman’s world travels papering the walls.

They opened the restaurant almost a year ago. It's one of a number of businesses that has staked a claim in the flood zone since the Cedar River inundated the city in 2008. 

The floodwaters crested in Cedar Rapids at a record 31.12 feet, displacing 10,000 residents and causing an estimated $5.4 billion in damage, according to city data.

"I guess I have that eternal optimism that things are going to be ok, things are going to be better this time around," - Christina Springman, owner of The Map Room

The building that now houses The Map Room was home to the Grafton Street Pub in 2008, and it took on five feet of water, said Christina Springman.

“A lot of the damage that really happened from this building, obviously five feet of water is going to do a lot of damage, but all the rescue boats and stuff that would come by, their wakes would slosh water up and over the top of the roof,” she said.

That bar never re-opened in the little tavern on 3rd Street SE. And the business that followed, Stella’s, closed after the most-recent, but less destructive, flood of 2016.

Springman admitted that’s not a good track record for this location. But she said the floods taught her that everything can be replaced and rebuilt.

“I guess I have that eternal optimism that things are going to be ok. Things are going to be better this time around. If they’re not, you just I guess deal with it and move on,” Springman said.

While Christina and her husband Mitch are Cedar Rapids natives, they weren’t living in the city during the 2008 flood. They heard reports of the disaster in their hometown on the national news and moved back to the city in 2009.

"I would personally never put my business back in the flood zone." - Gary Ficken, president of Bimm Ridder Sportswear

The flood dealt a serious blow to lifelong Cedar Rapidian Gary Ficken and his business, Bimm Ridder Sportwear.  Ten years after the disaster he said he's keeping his shop on high ground.

“Going through that, it would still make me nervous. I would personally never put my business back in the flood zone,” Ficken said.

Ficken’s business was located in the old Sinclair Meatpacking Plant at 1600 3rd Street SE, three blocks from the river. Even that close to the water, Ficken said it never occurred to him to get flood insurance.

"You prepare for a trickle just to come into your parking lot, nothing inside your building. And then the water at our site was 11 feet deep," Ficken said. "You can’t prepare for something that’s never happened before."  

Ficken said Bimm Ridder Sportswear took on $1.2 million in losses, a fraction of which was covered by insurance. Ficken and his business partners took out a $900,000 loan and put their homes up as collateral, and were able to reopen the shop on higher ground, eight blocks from the river.

One of the factors playing into businesses’ decisions on whether to move into the flood zone is the city’s commitment to a permanent flood control system. The seven mile network of levees, floodwalls and gates is designed to protect both sides of the river from another 2008-scale event. But Cedar Rapids is still waiting on federal funding for the project, which the city currently estimates will cost $750 million over 20 years.

"A lot of that was put up with the promise that we're going to execute a lot more flood control than we had before...but still there's no protection for them." - John Harris, Linn County Supervisor

A decade after the flood, Chair of the Linn County Board of Supervisors John Harris said he has mixed feelings about redevelopment in the flood zone.

“I think a lot of that was put up with the promise that we're going to execute a lot more flood control than we had before," Harris said. "So business owners are thinking ‘ok they’ll take care of me, I’ll start a business down here and I’ll be as a successful as I can’. They’ve done that, but still there’s no protection for them. So that worries me a lot."

But Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said he’s "very confident" in the work the city is doing since the flood, including installing more water pumps, repairing aging storm sewers, and building some levees and flood walls. Speaking to a room of business owners and investors recently, he said the city’s interim flood system of temporary barriers passed the test of the 2016 floods.

“While we had some temporary shutdowns perhaps of businesses and there was a bit of interruption, there was very, very little physical, physical damage to any facilities. And business was back in operation very, very quickly," he said. "We were able to protect the city."

Pomeranz sees redevelopment in the flood zone as vital. Public and private investment is bringing new life to areas like Czech Village, NewBo and Kingston Village. But without permanent protection, developer Steve Emerson of Aspect Architecture said the city is at risk.

“The flood protection...I think’s great and the efforts have been fantastic. But it’s not going to work unless it’s 100 percent done. And to get to that point, the amount of money that’s required to get to that point is daunting,” Emerson said.

But The Map Room owner Christina Springman said she can’t put her life on hold waiting for government action.

"I can't stop my life from moving forward waiting for federal funding. We have to still keep moving forward in our individual lives," Springman said.

Instead, she's putting her trust in her flood insurance and her customers.

“You can’t just not fulfill your dream of opening a restaurant because a flood happened ten years ago,” she said.

For almost 100 years the little building has been home to one pub or another, and that gives Springman confidence.

She’s planning on staying here for a while.