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Cedar Rapids’ legacy of smells plays in Penford debate

Rick Smith, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa –

The city’s 40-year-old marketing slogan, “The City of Five Seasons,” continues to confuse even as the unfortunate tagline that came to accompany it, “The City of Five Smells,” sturdily remains in place.

In recent weeks, the five-smells moniker has been embraced by some making the case against Penford Products Co.’s proposed industrial expansion into a city park next to Czech Village and just across and downriver from downtown.

Additional odors — Penford officials say there will be no additional odors — that could come with an expansion will only assure that the city keeps on smelling, opponents of the Penford proposal say.

Of course, the specificity of five smells only came to be with the arrival of the slogan, which was the brainchild of a local advertising agency in the late 1960s.

Cedar Rapids historian Mark Stoffer Hunter said the local reaction to the slogan was immediate once the city began actively promoting the slogan in the mid-1970s.

“As they got more public about it, the reaction by the locals was that it really is The City of Five Smells,” Stoffer Hunter said. “And partly this came out of the fact that they didn’t understand what The City of Five Seasons meant. I think that was why it was lampooned a little bit.”

By May of 1982, comedian and actor Robin Williams responded, “You mean The City of Five Smells?” when someone in the audience at his Paramount Theatre performance shouted, “How do you like Cedar Rapids?” At one point in his act, he turned himself into a passenger in a cab: “This your first time in Cedar Rapids, Mr. Williams?” the cabbie said. “I’ll close the windows.”

Tim Boyle, who was emerging as a popular radio DJ in Cedar Rapids at the time, said that Williams didn’t invent the idea of five smells, but instead knew that the smells had become “common parlance” locally and so incorporated it into his act.

Boyle himself was part of a Cedar Rapids comedy troupe back then, and he said, “I remember writing a joke that Mayor (Don) Canney had gotten federal funds to build a nine-story Air Wick solid on the city’s southwest side.”

Stoffer Hunter, Boyle and Dick Hogan, a retired Gazette writer who reviewed Robin Williams’ 1982 performance at The Paramount, agree that the smells of Cedar Rapids were much worse 30 years ago.

The most knee-buckling of smells back then emanated from the hog-slaughtering plant at the end of Third Street SE.

“That’s what really smelled bad,” Boyle said. Added Hogan, “I mean on some days, whew.”

In the late 70s, Stoffer Hunter said the city’s five smells typically consisted of those coming from the former Sinclair/Wilson/Farmstead hog plant, the city’s sewage treatment plant, which sat near Czech Village on the Mount Trashmore landfill site, the landfill itself, and then the Quaker and Penford plants next to downtown.

“I lived in southeast Cedar Rapids, just off Mount Vernon Road SE,” said Stoffer Hunter. “And when the wind was right, we would get the combined smell of the slaughterhouse, the sewage treatment plant and the landfill. The mix was just awful.”

The slaughterhouse closed about 20 years ago; the sewage treatment plant moved in 1980 to the edge of the city; and the landfill, which had been closed, has reopened temporarily to take in debris from the city’s flood recovery. The local solid waste agency’s open-air compost operation at the base of the landfill still can generate smells, but the agency has talked about moving the operation elsewhere.

The Air Quality Branch at Linn County Public Health reports that no place in Cedar Rapids or Linn County has exceeded national air-quality emission standards for about a year.

As for Penford, “They have a pretty solid compliance record given the complexity of their facility,” said Shane Dodge, Public Health’s branch manager.

Odors are more difficult to measure, Dodge said, and he reported that his agency can’t recall the county’s odor regulations being used to resolve a complaint in the last 20 years.

From the start, when The City of Five Smells first took hold, Stoffer Hunter said longtime local residents always have said that any industrial smell in Cedar Rapids is really just one smell, “the smell of money.”

“It means that we have vital, productive manufacturing industries in town that provide good-paying jobs,” Stoffer Hunter said the sentiment has been among some.

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