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The second-day story, with your help. Call Gazette reporter Adam Belz at (319) 398-8273 or e-mail him: adam.belz@gazcomm.com

Nice video of Recorder’s Office moving

Here’s the video, by Gazette photographer Jim Slosiarek:

Here’s the news story: Linn County departments have begun moving their offices from around Westdale Mall to Linn County West, at the old Steve & Barry’s store on the east side of the mall.

The first department to move is the Recorder’s Office, which is moving its computers and desks with the help of volunteers from Kirkwood Community College. The Recorder’s Office has been on the second level of Westdale since the flood, next door to J.C. Penney.

“We’ll be moving the big books on Saturday,” Linn County Recorder Joan McCalmant said.

The Treasurer’s Office, Auditor’s Office, Planning and Development, Mental Health/Developmental Disabilities, Veteran Affairs Office and other departments will all move over by month’s end.

Sheriff Brian Gardner expects to bring inmates back to the Linn County Jail this month, but said some of the contractors working at the jail are lagging a little bit.

The Board of Supervisors, which is located in the downtown Palmer Building, will move to Linn County West by the end of June, as will Finance and Budget, Human Resources, Risk Management, juvenile probation offices, Clerk of Courts and court functions for Juvenile, Small Claims and Traffic Courts.

County offices and court functions will remain at this temporary Linn County West location until permanent facilities are complete.

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Filed under: County Government, Flood, , , , , ,

Taking a break

I’m off Thursday through Sunday, and won’t be posting much, if anything, in that time.

I do want to point out a few things:

Todd Dorman’s column on the Compensation Board meeting is worth reading.

The story about Kraig Paulsen’s recall bill is also good reading, though people tell me the bill doesn’t stand much of a chance.

The supervisors OK’d staff getting a lease for the old Steve & Barry’s. Dorman’s heart-rending column about the falling out between the supervisors and Westdale’s owners is also worth reading.

Filed under: County Government, , , ,

Supervisors getting the word out

The Linn County Supervisors are beefing up their participation in the public discussion with a lengthy frequently asked questions document on the county’s website.

It was posted Friday, and deals largely with questions about Westdale Mall.

The supervisors pose questions like “Why did Linn County decline the offer to purchase Westdale Mall?” and “Why did Linn County ask for a response from Cushman & Wakefield (the mall owners’ proxy) by Jan. 26 regarding the leased space?” and “What has Linn County been doing the last seven months?”

To the supervisors’ credit, these are the questions people have been asking.

FYI, the owners of the mall are Cedar Rapids Properties Inc., an affiliate of Park National Bank of Chicago.

The latest news on Westdale’s health as a business is that Bishop’s is closing its restaurant there.

Filed under: County Government, , ,

No response from Westdale

Last week, the Board of Supervisors asked the owners of Westdale Mall to get back to them by Monday about extending county leases at the mall for another 24 months after April.

Mike Goldberg said Tuesday the Supervisors have received no response.

This is not terribly surprising, considering the supervisors have insisted they need up to nine months to decide if they want to buy the mall, and have essentially turned down the mall owners’ offer to sell for $18.5 million.

Now it looks like county offices at the mall may start packing up. Their leases end on April 30.

At tomorrow’s 10 a.m. meeting, the supervisors will “discuss and provide direction to staff on relocation of county services and offices.”

As has been their policy thus far, officials with Cushman Wakefield, the company representing mall ownership, declined to comment.

Filed under: County Government, , , ,

Lyon roars at Miller, torches Westdale idea

Joel Miller is pounding away at the Westdale issue on his blog. Bean polls, he points out, tell us the public wants the county to buy Westdale.

But Miller is running into some opposition from Ruth Lyon, a local government watchdog (she harassed me for weeks during the campaign over Eric Rosenthal’s accounting credentials) with whom I’ve exchanged e-mails but never spoken. She’s a clear thinker and writer, and let’s just say I wouldn’t want to get on her bad side.

She left a long comment on Miller’s blog excoriating him for second-guessing other elected officials, which she says is not part of his job description.

She also left a comment on yesterday’s story about the supervisors rejecting Westdale’s offer. The comment is worth reproducing in its entirety here, because it is the best summary of the reasons not to buy Westdale that I have yet seen (the supervisors have not yet made an effective case). Here ’tis:

There are good reasons for the County to consider being a tenant at Westdale and no reasons at all for the County to buy the property.

Consider the following:
1) The building is over thirty years old.
2) The few tenants who are there cannot fund the required maintenance, so the mall continues to deteriorate.
3) The mall is considered outdated. People prefer shopping elsewhere.
4) If a retailer wanted to open a store, there are other malls in the area that are in much better shape.
5) This is the worst economy for retail since the great depression.

Layoffs are increasing and people are cutting back their spending. How exactly will the County fill 500,000 sq ft of retail space?

Given the state of the building and the economy, why would we want our tax dollars to go to such a risky plan? Better to be a tenant for three to five years, and then see what is happening in the market.

Oh, and another thing. This is an $18.5 million dollar decision.

The very smartest thing the Supervisors could do it so hire a consultant.

After all, when you are pursuing an $18.5 million dollar decision, wouldn’t it make sense to spend $20K to get an experts opinion?

Speed isn’t important. Smart is important, and for this decision, a smart person would hire a consultant.

Ruth Lyon

Lyon also occasionally comments on Brent Oleson’s blog.

Filed under: County Government, , , ,

Supes reject Westdale offer

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Linn County Supervisors on Wednesday rejected a Dec. 1 proposal for them to buy Westdale Mall.

A letter to that effect was approved by a vote of 3-1, with Supervisor Brent Oleson dissenting and Supervisor Linda Langston absent.

The supervisors didn’t rule out ever buying the mall, but it doesn’t look likely.

The owners of Westdale sent a Jan. 13 letter to the supervisors saying either they must buy the mall for $18.5 million by March 30 or find a new place for several county offices that have been there since the flood.

In their response, the supervisors said they appreciate the mall’s generosity toward Linn County since the flood. They also said they must explore the option of co-location with the city and school district, which will take at least six months.

“Clearly, such a timeline is irreconcilable with a deadline of March 30, 2009,” the supervisors wrote in their letter to the mall’s owners.

The supervisors asked Westdale’s owners to consider extending leases for 17 county offices at Westdale for another 24 months beyond April 30, and asked for a response to this question by Monday.

“Linn County requires a quick response to this question as alternate space would need to be arranged and accomplished by the April 30 deadline should lease extension not be possible,” the supervisors wrote.

Oleson voted against the letter because he doesn’t think purchasing Westdale has ever been seriously considered, and because co-location discussions have not begun in earnest, he said.

“I think this letter that we’re going to send today is the death knell for Westdale as a long-term option,” Oleson said. “I thought it was fitting because the process has been plagued by indecision, miscommunication and what some consider bad faith.”

Filed under: County Government, , , ,

Pen-pals! Supes to write Westdale letter Wednesday

At its 10 a.m. meeting Wednesday, the Board of Supervisors will formally deal with the letter from Westdale’s owners that was read aloud at Friday’s meeting.

“We are responding in writing,” Supervisor Ben Rogers said.

Will the supervisors ask for the mall to reconsider, and extend the county’s leases even if the supervisors decide not to buy the mall?

“That is hopefully what our letter will address,” Rogers said.

Meanwhile, Rogers says, the supervisors may authorize staff to search for new office space.

I called Clint Miller, the representative for Westdale who wrote the letter that told supervisors to “buy or fly,” as our headline writer put it.

I asked him two questions.

1. Is it possible you will extend the county’s leases past April 30 even if the supervisors don’t buy the mall?
2. Why add the threat of ending the short-term leases? Why not just say you’re going to put the mall back on the market if the supervisors don’t respond by March 30?

“We’re in a position here where I’m going to give you a no comment,” Miller said.

Filed under: County Government, , ,

What was behind Westdale’s ultimatum?

After the flood, the mall donated office space to Linn County for nearly six months.

Since November, the county has been paying rent, and weighing its options for the future of county buildings. On Dec. 1, the mall’s owners offered to sell the mall to the county for $18.5 million.

Then on Friday came an ultimatum for the supervisors: Buy the mall or find a new place for county offices.

Clearly frustration played into this, as Brent Oleson argues on his blog.

But there’s more to it.

The fact that the county has taken up temporary residence at the mall is the mall owner’s only bargaining chip.

They’ve been trying to sell for $18.5 million since March 2008, and reportedly have received no offers near that. While the presence of numerous government offices has breathed some life into the mall, its pre-flood retail occupancy had dwindled to around 50 percent.

Even if one were to disregard the figures presented at Friday’s meeting – where purchasing Westdale would be millions of dollars more expensive than the county’s other options (which include a potential joint facility with the city and school district) – the prospect of buying Westdale Mall is daunting to county officials. The county would fill only 10 percent of the space, leaving 90 percent of the 630,000 square feet for the county to manage/sell/develop/etc.

One theory is that the supervisors (except perhaps Oleson and Rogers) have never seriously considered buying the mall.

This has been Auditor Joel Miller’s contention since before the offer was made, and Miller exploded at Friday’s meeting over the fact that the supervisors and their staff have not been communicating with mall owners much since December.

The mall says it has “assembled a package of property information for [supervisors’] review,” but can’t send it until the county returns a confidentiality agreement that would protect the proprietary information in the packet. The county has not returned the agreement, and this bugs both Miller and Oleson.

Miller said he was “incredibly disappointed” and called the supervisors “amazing” for not communicating better with the mall’s owners.

Oleson, on his blog, argues something similar, in softer language:

“I think the statement was made in frustration at the lack of formal communication between the county and the Mall owners. There has literally been no communication between the county and the sellers regarding the Mall owners early December offer to sell.”

Mike Goldberg said he received the confidentiality agreement and passed it on to Gary Jarvis, assistant county attorney.

Jarvis said after the meeting Friday that he thought the county had gathered the information it needed. But more importantly, he didn’t want county staff to come up with a recommendation for the supervisors based on confidential information. It might have forbidden staff from explaining their recommendations in public meetings, a scenario he did not find acceptable.

Filed under: County Government, , , , , , , , ,

Liveblogging meeting on Westdale, county buildings

One of the six options will presumably be the purchase of Westdale, where several county offices have operated since June. The county’s administrative office building, sheriff’s office, and several other buildings were knocked out of commission by the flood.

Supervisor Brent Oleson has reported on his blog that representatives of the mall’s owners have sent a letter to the supervisors threatening that if no sale of the mall can be agreed on, neither will Linn County’s short-term leases at Westdale be extended beyond April 30.

Oleson said the owners are frustrated because the county has failed to communicate with them.

I’ll be liveblogging the meeting here.

Filed under: County Government, ,

Building choices on Friday agenda

Don’t expect a decision any time soon.

The Supervisors will look at six building options Friday at 2:30 p.m. The meeting is in Westdale Mall across from the Linn County Auditor’s Office and is open to the public.

One of the options will presumably be the purchase of Westdale, where several county offices have operated since June. The county’s administrative office building, sheriff’s office, and several other buildings were knocked out of commission by the flood.

Linn County staff and Design Dynamics, a local architectural firm, will make the presentation.

It will kick off what Supervisor Lu Barron is calling phase 2 of the timeline the county has set for deciding where it wants its offices to be in the future.

The county won’t make any decisions until the three governmental entities explore the possibility of shared community facilities. A telephone survey of county residents shows the public isn’t necessarily opposed to the idea.

Some 66 percent believe the supervisors ought to explore sharing a building (or several buildings) with the county, the city of Cedar Rapids and Cedar Rapids school district — if it improves convenience.

If the three organizations decide to move forward with a coordinated effort, they’ll kick off a “public participation” process that could take another six to nine months.

“We’ll know more as we continue our discussions,” Barron said in a statement.

Filed under: County Government, , , ,

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