Cedar Rapids mayor asks in 2024 State of the City address: ‘What Is Your Why?’

O’Donnell focuses on growth, potential in 41st annual speech to about 850 attendees

2024 State of the City TIffany O'Donnell 1
Cedar Rapids mayor Tiffany O'Donnell speaks during the 2024 State of the City address May 23 at the DoubleTree By Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex. CREDIT RICHARD PRATT

Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell chose a short but impactful quote from author Simon Sinek to encapsulate her theme for the 2024 Cedar Rapids State of the City address May 23.

The quote chosen by Ms. O’Donnell comes from Mr. Sinek’s 2009 book, “Start With Why,” and hits at the heart of Cedar Rapids’ growth throughout its 175-year history, over the past year,  and its potential for future growth.

“The premise is simple,” Ms. O’Donnell said during her address, themed “What Is Your Why?” and delivered to about 850 attendees at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex.

“‘People don’t buy what you do,’” she said, quoting Mr. Sinek. “‘They buy why you do it.’ Or in this case, people won’t move to the greater Cedar Rapids metro because we did. They’ll move here because of why we live here. So at the end of the day, we can do our part as a city and as elected officials, to check all kinds of boxes – great parks, clean, safe streets, entertaining shows and festivals – but that’s what we do. It is way more powerful to know why we do it, and then to share our why with our community.”

According to Ms. O’Donnell, the state of Cedar Rapids is strong – not just because of its infrastructure, employees and economic growth, but because city leaders are focused on  the details of propelling the city’s progress.

“I consider our job to connect the dots,” she said. “And not just the dots from A to B. We talk about the dots between A and F, from C to Y, and then ultimately, A to Z. We drive, we push, we occasionally pull, to reinforce the forward-moving and ever-evolving city mission.”

Highlighting economic development achievements of the past year, Ms. O’Donnell said growth is vital to the city’s ongoing success.

“If you don’t grow your income, it is hard to grow your mission,” she said. “And we have an ambitious growth plan in Cedar Rapids. We need to make sure that our tax base – our businesses, legacy companies as well as new companies – continue to expand in sustainable and responsible ways, and our residents have safe affordable places to live with the opportunity to live out their own American dream.”

Economic development highlights noted by Ms. O’Donnell:

In total, Ms. O’Donnell said, the city reported a total total valuation of $525 million in building permits in 2023 – the second highest reported valuation ever recorded.

City-incentivized housing projects across a variety of price points will bring a total of $122 million in new housing development, Ms. O’Donnell said.

Cedar Rapids is now home to more than 10,000 businesses, she noted, including more than 300 manufacturing plants and two dozen Fortune 500 companies.

More than $300 million in capital expenditures, spurred by the city’s economic development team, have brought more than 300 new jobs to the city and retained nearly 400 jobs in the past year.

And, Ms. O’Donnell noted, “we might be able to add one more project to the list. Apparently there’s this little business called Google that just might set up shop here on the southwest side.”

“This is a project that is five plus years in the making,” she said. “We competed hard for this as a city. My first month as mayor, I met with a Google representative alongside our city manager, who had a clear passion for Cedar Rapids and appreciated our aggressive incentive package for them. This project is set to pave the way for a prosperous future for the thousands of workers who will get it up and running, and for the hundreds of others who will, over time, service and operate up to six data centers.”

Final plans for that project haven’t been officially announced.

Ms. O’Donnell also highlighted several initiatives on affordable housing, which she termed “a top priority,” including nearly $8 million in rental assistance to more than 1,000 “very low-income households,” and the acquisition of new specialty housing vouchers that will help “even more community members,” new down payment support for 10 low- to moderate-income households, and the relaunch of the CR ROOTS program, offering new construction single-family homes to low- to moderate-income buyers, especially those impacted by the derecho.

Looking to the future, Ms. O’Donnell said the city is set to add 10,760 new jobs by 2033, bringing the city’s workforce near 160,000 workers – 7% larger than today’s workforce.

“Our annual population growth is nearly two times the state average,” she said. “That said, it’s not enough to get us where we need to go. We need to be strategic. We need to be smart in how we’re bringing people beyond Iowa’s borders to the metro area.”

But the addition of new businesses and new jobs has its potential drawbacks as well. Ms. O’Donnell shared a recent conversation with a local business owner about acquiring land for a potential new business that could bring hundreds of jobs.

“While he understood my excitement, he also looked me straight in the eye and said what I believe some of you here may have said to me, too – ‘why would I help you bring in a company that’s going to take employees from me, jobs that I can’t even fill right now, and make me have to pay more to keep them?’”

She said issues like that reinforce the need to attract new workforce members to the community pointing to a new collaborative workforce growth initiative launched last by the mayors of Cedar Rapids, Marion and Hiawatha, as well as the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, “to find the people who have the skills, the ability and the desire to move to the Cedar Rapids area, then to go get them.”

Through market research, the initiative is now focused on five communities, including Wisconsin, Chicagoland, the Twin Cities, the greater Denver area, and Southern California.

“These places are packed, as we learned, with potential talent who have the exact skills that we are looking for in the greater Cedar Rapids metro area,” she said. “Many of these people already have a favorable impression of Cedar Rapids, and many want to return home. This effort goes beyond attracting talent, though – it also requires that we nurture the local talent that’s here, investing in efforts to cultivate our next generations of Cedar Rapids leaders and upskill our workforce that we have right now. This includes recent graduates as well as existing professionals, because we know they will play a significant role in shaping our future.”

She said the Economic Alliance is taking the lead by hiring a talent development director for the metro area.

“We’ve set budgets for the next three years and work plans covering branding needs, communication strategies, working groups and yes, fundraising efforts,” she said. “This is a mission that we are all on together, and while the cities will be asked financially to contribute, private partners will be required as well.”

Ms. O’Donnell also highlighted several community-based projects over the past years, including:

  • The latest investments in the city’s Paving for Progress program, with $28.3 million invested in 2023 and $206 million to date, improving more than 105 miles of city streets;
  • $60 million of new investment in the city’s flood protection system, which is now more than a third finished and will reach $1 billion when completed;
  • The receipt of $56 million in federal funds for the new Arc of Justice bridge, set to replace the Eighth Avenue bridge over the Cedar River;
  • ConnectCR, which incorporates an extensive improvement project at Cedar Lake, the upcoming Alliant Energy LightLine Bridge project, the LightLine Loop project near Czech Village, which will feature the return of the city’s iconic Roundhouse, and the Greenway plan, with plans to include pedestrian promenades, a destination skate park, water-based venues such as a canoe safari, and a destination playground; and
  • A transformative downtown plan which will include a redesign of First Street East, potential new uses for Mays Island, new active uses for the Veterans Memorial Building and a reconstructed Second Avenue that can be easily converted to a pedestrian-friendly festival street.

Later in the event, Ms. O’Donnell invited several community leaders to share thoughts on their connections with Cedar Rapids, including Chris DeWolf, CEO of Lil’ Drug Store; Deb Crerie, owner of Kinheart Studio;  Samantha Rogers, vice president of human resources for TrueNorth Companies; and Keeyon Carter, pastor of Wellington Heights Community Church.

Mr. DeWolf, whose Lil’ Drug Store small-packaged medications are now available in more than 180,000 retail locations nationwide, said that even as the company has grown exponentially over its 50-year history, he never thought about relocating.

“Why have we chosen to stay?” Mr. DeWolf said. “I think it really comes down to a few things – Iowa values and the sense of community and entrepreneurial spirit that is so alive right here in Cedar Rapids. When I say Iowa values, I mean valuing character, holding yourself and others to the highest standard, being true to your word, and expressing care and compassion as you engage in and connect with the world around you. These values are in great supply right here in Cedar Rapids, both in our labor force and in our businesses. And embracing them has been absolutely key to our success.”

Ms. Crerie said when she and her wife were looking to move from Washington, D.C., they were seeking a community with a welcoming spirit.

“That kind of friendship and connection has been so important to me and my studio,” she said. “I’ve never felt as welcome as I have here.”

The highlight, for many, came at the very end of the event, when Ms. O’Donnell presented a city proclamation – and a rarely-awarded key to the city – to former Cedar Rapids Washington standout and current Iowa women’s basketball star Hannah Stuelke.

Ms. Stuelke, known for being soft-spoken, was clearly overwhelmed by the recognition, bursting into tears at one point.

“It’s much easier to play in front of a lot of people than to talk,” she said. “I just want to say thank you to everyone for supporting me for such a long time.”

Ms. O’Donnell closed the event with a challenge to attendees.

“The state of Cedar Rapids is strong because of each one of you,” she said. “We have built a city full of life and of opportunity together. So I leave you with a very important question. What is your why? And maybe even more importantly, who will you tell?”