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Water into wine? City looks to turn mall into ice hockey rink

NIT Opinion –

JC Penneym January 8, 2015
JC Penney, January 8, 2015

We just learned in January that JC Penney is tucking its tail between its legs and limping out of Southbridge Mall, permanently.

The march out of the Cultural Crescent / downtown has turned from a trickle into a stampede, it seems, as of late. Word is, a couple nearby stalwart restaurants might be next. Poof, gone. You may wake up one spring or summer morning to see “closed” signs in the front doors. The mall is on life support; everyone knows that and recognizes it except TJ Just (doesn’t pay all his bills) and a couple dozen die-hard cheerleaders who just ignore the writing on the wall. God bless ya, you’re about all Mason City has left. How they will spin it when KIMT moves to Rochester ought to be a hoot, indeed.

Now here we are, a few short weeks after Penney’s announcement. Sometime between January 8 and February 23, the city got the news and decided to turn that soon-to-be-vacant mall anchor into an ice hockey rink. That’s six weeks. Plans were formed, architectural drawings were rendered, city staff was consulted, meetings were held (who knows in what order)… and a decision was made to go for it.

Seems there is some state money out there to be had. That’s still our tax dollars, public money; the story is being spun that Mason City should try to grab that money before someone else does. No harm in that unless you feel like you pay too much to the state. Apparently, the city tried to grab that cash by the arm last year but was one or two beers short of a six pack and got turned down.

This time around, city staff claim this application to the state is stronger.  They list 5 “projects” that are a part of the application that will be sent to Des Moines.  These projects include the latest version of a hotel to be placed in a public parking lot next to city hall (they’ve been feeding that one to the public since October of 2013); a parking ramp (would be the first one in Mason City, ever); a mixed-use retail and residential development that would be built on a gravel parking lot at North Federal Avenue and Second Street (more retail two blocks from a mall that can’t keep its stores open); the latest attempt at a performing arts pavilion (Robin Anderson’s apparent pet project that she’s tried to build a number of times in the past, last time in 2013 outside the library); and last but not least, a $12 million hockey rink inside the JC Penney building.

Robin Anderson wants her pavilion.  You don't tell Robin no, and she's an ace at spending public money.
Robin Anderson wants her pavilion. You don’t tell Robin no, and she’s an ace at spending public money.

Sources say our favorite free-loading mayor, Eric Bookmeyer, has been dreaming of an arena since he was elected.  Since he has virtually no legacy in Mason City outside of setting the town back 50 years on the civil rights front, he needs this arena.  He needs it bad.  He would be forgotten in 6 months when he mercifully leaves office someday, without it.  Only thing he would leave behind if he left today would be his butt-cheek imprints on bar stools all over town.  So, Eric is working over-time (if you can believe that) to push this through.  He’s got Robin in his corner, as always; you can see her fingerprints all over the pavilion; she’s wanted that for years.

Problem is, the plan seems fraught with short-comings.  How can the state approve this plan?  Let’s evaluate.

  • We already have a performing arts pavilion.  It’s that goofy old flat-bed semi-truck trailer the Globe parks downtown for music acts.   Plus, we have the band shell.  Everybody knows, our governor is a Republican and he hates duplication of services.  Strike one.
  • A downtown parking ramp would be the first of its kind here.  City hall never made Mercy build one; instead, we have a sea of concrete lots.  If this ramp is built, does it mean Mason City is looking to enter the 21st century?  This one’s a wash.
  • The town has made it clear it’s not interested in a hockey rink or arena.  Most folks are afraid that eventually, their tax dollars would subsidize it.  They don’t want the risk, and they said so a few years back.  There is a vocal minority that wants the arena.  Maybe they can prove that they will keep it up without help from taxpayers.  Strike two… too much bad history.
  • A retail and residential building downtown might work.  But, it looks bad for new retail shops when its neighbors will be cell phone repair shops, pawn shops, dollar stores and plenty of vacant store fronts.  Who wants to live in the apartments/condos above those retail shops with the crime downtown?  You can call this one a wash, just to be nice, but it don’t look good.
  • The hotel is supposedly looking to open in a community that has razor-thin profit margins and low vacancy rates.   Just like in 2013, when the people were lied to by city hall, the Globe and KIMT about “ground being broken in April” on the first version of the hotel, this deal seems shaky.  Who knows, maybe it will go through.  City hall’s plan seems to be to keep telling the story until it comes true.  They have proven they will lie about anything to win an election or to protect themselves, make themselves look good somehow.  This hotel story that gets re-gurgitated by Humpty Dumpty at 300 North Washington every few months is trying to accomplish that but people are getting wise.  Huge strike three.

All this might fly in a town that has momentum.  Even a plan as odd as this one might work in a place that is adding residents, new businesses, good paying jobs – growing.  Problem is, everyone knows Mason City is going the other way.  Census numbers prove that the mayor and his council have failed miserably in reversing the trend of a shrinking community.  All his bloviating, year after year, in his “state of the city” addresses has gone absolutely nowhere but south.  He’s created the low-wage capitol of North Iowa, where great jobs pay $9.50 and we watch nearby Lake Mills, Osage, Charles City, Thompson, Clear Lake add hundreds of good-paying jobs and we get nothing.  He’s helped create a business climate where temp-jobs rule the day.  If the mayor was telling you the truth, he’d admit he can look out his own front window and see felonious crimes take place with regularity (500 block of East State Street).

If the city can sell this deal to the state, despite the sloppiness of the plan and the realities of this community, well, that’s great.  That’s progress.  Miracles do happen, congrats, build it.  Some of us are tired of turning a blind eye, however, and just tell it like it is.  It will be interesting to see what the state agency says, the one that writes the check.


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