In a perfect hypothetical world, economic development would not be in the hands of any government. In reality, all towns and states are competing for citizens and investments; without these two, cities will ultimately fail. As long as tax collections outpace the cost of services, a city is in great shape. However, when property values begin to dwindle, and cost begins to outpace revenue, cities are forced to make very difficult decisions.
One of the big decisions is how to cut cost without impacting essential services. Mason City, like so many other towns across this state, have been doing this for decades. Also, like other cities, we are at the stage to either cut services or raise property taxes by more than just normal inflationary rates.
The mall has been struggling for years. If this path continues, the mall will end up closing. There will be no tax collections (which will have to be made up by raising property taxes on other properties). Inevitably, we will end up with the building being a liability for the city. Leaving us with two options; raze the building, which will cost millions or give it away and use incentives (which will probably be millions) to bring it back to life.
As of now, Mason City is fighting against both of these options by utilizing state tax dollars, local option sales tax, private investment and TIF funds to make this potential liability (the mall) into a city asset before the previous scenarios occur. Through modest investment (compared to alternatives), the city can make the mall relevant again.
Here is the way in which the city and city council are trying to invest those tax dollars on a multiple-tier economic development plan.
The city council first hired an administrator with the number one goal of finding someone who can get River City Renaissance to be successful. We believe we found that person in Aaron Burnett. He has been given direction through goal-setting sessions and also a 5-1 vote to complete this project. We have already begun plans on the multi-purpose arena, and the first bid package will be acted on by the council in mid-January. These are bold steps toward the vision the community embraced just over a year ago and the vision of the City Council for the downtown. This vision and the council’s votes are a firm rejection of the status quo.
I believe in forging ahead to make progress happen, and I hope so are my fellow councilmen. We, as a community, must be proactive in building the city we want to live in rather than cowering to those who would take a path of inaction and therefore the slow erosion of the core of our community.
The Iowa Economic Development Board is supportive of the River City Renaissance and will help us secure the approximately $9.2 million in state funding for this transformative project. The city staff will work diligently to structure debt and payments appropriately to limit potential exposure to future tax increases.
The hotel developer, Gatehouse, is working to bring a plan forward that will secure funding and produce a modern hotel and conference center. This development will produce a huge economic impact that will outpace the incentives provided. Furthermore, countless other groups and organizations are making valiant steps forward in securing the vision for the future that shuns the defeatist attitude of our past.
No one can provide certainty; however, the opportunity presented by the $9.2 million funding from the State of Iowa will never be available again and the problems addressed through this project will certainly continue to exist. Accordingly, I will continue to support the vision of the River City Renaissance, continue to vote for a better stronger community now and for tomorrow, and continue to embrace Mason City as the progressive community it is.
John Lee is a Mason City High School history and government teacher who is serving his second term on the Mason City Council.