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Update: Mason City mall could be auctioned if $150K tax bill isn't paid by Dec. 5

MASON CITY | The Mason City Council is moving forward with the $39 million downtown River City Renaissance Project.

The city council in a special meeting Tuesday approved a pre-development agreement with Gatehouse Mason City LLC in a 5-1 vote, with Councilman Joshua Masson opposed. It also unanimously approved an architectural contract with ICON Architectural Group of Grand Forks, North Dakota, for a multipurpose arena at Southbridge Mall.

“Whether you agree or disagree with the merits of this project, everybody that’s here that spoke understands that the situation with the mall is a dire situation,” said Paul Adams, at-large councilman. “In my opinion, the best path forward to cure that is with this project due to the large amount of private investment coming in as well as the inflection from the state money.”

The council’s votes came after nearly 20 North Iowans, including individuals representing downtown organizations and businesses, spoke — many in support, some with caution — of the project during an hour-long public forum.

In voicing support for the city’s project, K.K. Jones, who spoke on behalf of Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works in Mason City, said the two stores attracted about 7,500 shoppers last week during post-Thanksgiving shopping. 

“This investment into this development, the downtown area, again doesn’t only benefit Southbridge Mall, it benefits all of North Iowa because it creates a hub for customers to come and shop with us again and again,” she said.

Other mall tenants, like Rick Larson, owner of Larson Red Zone Sports; Rick Morel, manager of Riddle’s Jewelry; Le Anne Clausen de Montes, executive director of North Iowa Children’s Discovery Center; and Rosita Cansino with Mr. Taco, also spoke in support of the project.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for our mall, for the downtown and the community of Mason City,” said Cindy Boender, Southbridge Mall manager. “Let’s seize this moment to take advantage of the Iowa grant funding and get this project started.”

While representatives with downtown businesses and organization, like Visit Mason City, Main Street Mason City and the Mason City Chamber of Commerce, touted the long-term value the project would bring to the city, several individuals encouraged the council to proceed with caution for the sake of the taxpayers.

CHRIS ZOELLER The Globe Gazette 

Southbridge Mall owner Michael Kohan paid delinquent taxes totaling $150,254 by the agreed upon deadline with the Cerro Gordo County Treasurer's office.

“I’m not opposed to helping the mall come back to life in some other form,” said Lionel Foster, a Mason City resident and former city employee. “What I’m trying to do is encourage the city council to give a little more attention … I don’t want you to leave a debt on the taxpayers of Mason City if this project falls on its face … I’m asking you to do your due diligence and put your numbers together and make sure in the long haul it’s going to survive.”

Foster and several others also sought information related to Monday’s announcement from the Cerro Gordo County Treasurer’s Office that several of the mall owner’s tax checks bounced.

The payment would’ve satisfied $177,324 in delinquent real estate taxes and interest for Southbridge Mall, which is owned by Mike Kohan's LLC, Southbridge Mall Realty Holding.

Kohan also owes an additional $77,772 for taxes due in September.

Mason City Administrator Aaron Burnett said the county now has an agreement with Kohan that requires he pay $150,000 in taxes by Dec. 5, and if he fails to do so, there will be a tax sale.

“Going forward if there was a tax sale, I know several groups expressed interest in ownership of the mall. I don’t believe that there’d be a significant change (in the project),” he said. “Now obviously, if there was a change before everything was locked in then that would … create an issue if the new mall owner was not supportive of the project.”

Tuesday’s meeting came nearly a month after the city terminated its contract with G8 Development after it didn’t provide proof of financing for the $15 million hotel, a part of the $39 million River City Renaissance Project as it satisfies a state requirement for private investment. In 2013, G8 pitched the idea for a hotel near City Hall, but construction never started on the project.

G8’s delay led the city to work with another developer, Gatehouse Capital, but a change in contract negotiations forced the project to be re-bid in 2017, with G8 submitting the more favorable bid.

G8 has threatened a second lawsuit against the city for conduct related to the default.

Burnett said since the city’s termination of the G8 Development agreement, staff has been working with local partners to determine a path forward.

The pre-development agreement with Gatehouse is a culmination of those considerations, its track record and the time constraints to receive state grant funding.

CHRIS ZOELLER The Globe Gazette 

The Mason City Council voted in a special meeting Tuesday to approve a pre-development agreement with Gatehouse Mason City LLC that would move forward the $39 million downtown River City Renaissance Project.

“It became clear that time and ability had to be the two considerations that are the key components in this decision,” Burnett said. “With that in mind, that’s why you see Gatehouse is the proposal in front of the council. “

Mason City has been pre-approved for $9.1 million in state funding for the River City Renaissance project, which includes the hotel, multipurpose arena at Southbridge Mall and conference center at The Music Man Square.

Burnett said the city can begin capturing revenue from the state on Jan. 1, 2020.

“With that in mind, construction has to start fairly quickly and that means that the design has to start fairly quickly and that’s the urgency in putting this decision in front of the council today,” he said.

A letter from Gatehouse to the city states the project will have a 100-room “select-service hotel,” such as Courtyard, Hilton Garden Inn or Hyatt Place. The Music Man Square would be expanded to include a 6,000-square foot ballroom and 1,500 square-foot banquet kitchen.

Gatehouse’s proposal includes a $100,000 payment by the city to “complete a list of activities to bring the project forward to an agreement,” including land status changes around The Music Man Square, updating the market study, providing drawings, term sheets and budgets.

Burnett said the payment will be made using tax increment financing funds, a funding mechanism commonly used by municipalities to finance projects. 

The payment is due by Dec. 4. It, along with the previous $150,000 the city paid to Gatehouse, would be refunded to the city 45 days after the project is funded, according to the memo.

After the public forum, members of the city council spoke about the project before ultimately approving it.

“I’m a Mason City native. I’ve seen a lot of things happen here, some great, some not so great, but I think this is going to be a terrific project, and I can’t wait to see the first shovel in the dirt turned,” said Tom Thoma, at-large councilman.

Masson, who vocalized support for Mason City and development of its downtown, voted against proceeding with the project because of the developer.

“I’m in favor of a downtown Renaissance project, I’m just not in favor of as written and as presented today,” he said.

As for the multipurpose arena, Burnett noted in a memo the Mason City Youth Hockey Association, which hosts the North Iowa Bulls, needs to have the arena begin construction or it will “face some difficult decisions on investment because their ice system is well beyond its normal lifecycle and is starting to have failures.”

In 2016, the hockey association said replacing the 35-year-old ice floor and modernizing its current facility at the North Iowa Events Center could top $1 million.

“I really want to encourage the City Council to get to an answer today,” said Steve Crane, president of Mason City Youth Hockey Association, who was joined by association families in the audience during the meeting. “We’ve already been at the breaking point. We have to make a decision whether it’s here downtown or we continue to use the ice at the fairgrounds. We feel we’ve been a fair partner to this point and really need to get an answer from you guys.”

At the Southbridge Mall multipurpose arena, the association has committed to pay for everything related to ice operations, plus $500,000 in cash, not to exceed $2 million. It would lease the arena and manage it during the hockey season.

ICON has worked on a number of athletic facilities, including hockey arenas in North Dakota and Minnesota.

When council members asked Burnett why a local company wasn’t proposed for the ice arena project, he said it’s because of its ability to meet the “extraordinarily fast” deadline to complete the ice arena by next fall, which was recently demonstrated in Moorhead, Minnesota, to meet the association’s needs.

The two projects – hotel and ice arena – need to run concurrently, Burnett said.

Here's everything you need to know about Mason City's River City Renaissance Project

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First of Samoyeds seized from North Iowa puppy mill adopted by Cedar Rapids couple

WATERLOO -- "I'm going to miss you. Forget all that horrible stuff that happened to you. You are going to be a good dog."

Those were the parting words from Abby Cresap, adoption supervisor at Cedar Bend Humane Society, to puppy Gus as he left for his new home Tuesday morning.

Gus is one of nine Samoyeds that arrived at the shelter last week. Those nine were among 154 Samoyeds seized from a puppy mill in Manly earlier this month.

Five-month-old Gus was the first of the Cedar Bend Samoyeds to be adopted. He'll now live with his new family, Sheila and Lynn Williams of Cedar Rapids.

CBHS staff said sending Gus off to his new home is bittersweet.

"In cases like this we get very attached," said CBHS Co-Director Kristi Gardner. "We put a lot into them."

The dogs will continue to need a lot of attention, Gardner said.

BRANDON POLLOCK, Waterloo Courier 

Puppy Gus gets his adoption day photo with his new owner, Sheila Williams. Shooting the photo is Cedar Bend Human Society Adoption Supervisor Abby Cresap.

When the Worth County Sheriff’s Office executed a search warrant Nov. 12, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals seized 154 Samoyeds and four cats from a property near Manly, citing animal neglect, according to court documents.

The property is owned by Barbara Kavars, 65, who operates White Fire Kennels. Kavars has not been charged with a crime, but the ASPCA says animal neglect charges are pending.

The dogs were living in "appalling and overcrowded conditions and exhibiting signs of neglect with no access to clean water," said the ASPCA. The outdoor kennels had little to no food and no clean water, with only a few non-heated buckets containing frozen water, according to court documents. The kennels, which smelled strongly of ammonia and were full of feces, had limited roof cover, were unheated and were overcrowded.

Many of the dogs seized were underweight, had dental problems, untrimmed nails and fecal matter on their bodies and between the pads of their feet. Some dogs were fighting, others were cowering and some had trouble standing and walking.

The Samoyeds that arrived at Cedar Bend -- Gus, Rose, Dutchess, Tippy, Luna, Maddy, Snow, Blizzard and Indy, are grossly underweight and timid. Under quarantine, they've been vaccinated, spayed and neutered, de-wormed and groomed to remove matted fur. A couple of them, including Gus, needed hernia repair surgery. Indy, 3 months, was quickly placed in foster care to begin early socialization.

"Socialization, that's the biggest challenge," Gardner said.

BRANDON POLLOCK, Waterloo Courier 

Kristi Gardner, Cedar Bend Humane Society co-director, spends a few minutes with one of the 154 Samoyeds seized from a puppy mill in Manly and one of the nine being sheltered, evaluated and acclimated to human contact at the Waterloo shelter.

When the dogs arrived at CBHS, they cowered in the corners of their kennels. They're still timid, but are learning to trust humans. Staff sit alongside them in their kennels several times a day, offering treats and gentle pets.

"It's going to be a process," Gardner said. "They've never been in a house before. They don't know what carpet feels like, what a TV sounds like, the movement of a ceiling fan. They're terrified of leashes. It's going to take a while."

It took Gus a few minutes to warm up to Sheila Williams, who'd made the hour-long drive to get him.

Photos: 10 Iowa puppy mills on Humane Society watch list for inhumane conditions

"You gotta be brave," Cresap told Gus as he anxiously inched out the kennel door toward his new mom.

"They are great dogs. They are very outgoing and are such happy dogs generally," Williams said, noting Gus will have some four-legged help adjusting to his new life from Williams' other family member -- Olivia, a 10-year-old Samoyed.

CBHS has received more than 100 applications from all over the country -- New York, Maine, Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota -- from people interested in adopting the Samoyeds. Gus was the first to go home Tuesday. That afternoon, Tippy met her prospective family and would head to her new home that evening. Indy is expected to be adopted by the end of the week.

BRANDON POLLOCK, Waterloo Courier 

"Gus," one of the 154 Samoyeds seized from a puppy mill in Manly and one of the nine being sheltered and evaluated at the Cedar Bend Humane Society, takes in his surroundings with the gentle hand of his new owner, Sheila Williams, of Cedar Rapids.

The remaining dogs continue to be evaluated and socialized and will be matched with families that are the best fit.

"We're excited to get them homes, but we want to match up the right people with the right pet," Gardner said.

Photos: ASPCA rescues Samoyeds from Worth County puppy mill

Photos: ASPCA rescues 160 dogs from Worth County puppy mill

Clear Lake mom leaving abusive relationship requests Cheer Fund help for kids' presents

CLEAR LAKE | A Clear Lake woman is asking the Christmas Cheer Fund to help her purchase gifts for her four children this season.

The woman, 32, said she’s going through a divorce.

“There is a (no-contact order) against my husband because he is abusive,” she wrote in her Cheer Fund application.

She has four children between 4 and 11 years old.

The woman said if awarded Christmas Cheer Fund assistance, it would be used to purchase presents for her children.

Since the Cheer Fund began in 1927, more than $3 million has been raised to help about 2,700 North Iowa families.

This year’s goal is $125,000.

The Christmas Cheer Fund was established by Globe Gazette Publisher Lee Loomis in 1927 so every child could have a present on Christmas morning. In the years since it has come to mean a little help at Christmastime to people of all ages.

Donations may be dropped off or mailed to the Globe Gazette office, 300 N. Washington Ave., Mason City, IA 50402-0271.

Any remaining funds not distributed for the holidays will be given to local nonprofits. The Christmas Cheer Fund balance will return to $100 in January to maintain the checking account.

Those in need can apply for help from the Cheer Fund at the Globe Gazette between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. weekdays through Dec. 18. Applicants must use the 2018 request form.