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The Elbert Files: CyTown?


The $200 million “CyTown” entertainment district Iowa State University athletic director Jamie Pollard wants to build between the school’s football stadium and basketball arena is a gobsmacking concept saddled with questions.

Pollard said CyTown will be “similar in concept” to Kansas City’s Power & Light District and Wisconsin’s Titletown District, which is adjacent to Lambeau Field, home of the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers.

Both are remarkable developments.

Kansas City’s $850 million Power & Light District is a mixed-use development of hotels, housing, brewpubs and retailers with a focus on sporting and entertainment events. It was launched in 2007 after a Maryland-based developer persuaded lawmakers to allow open carrying of alcoholic beverages between bars within the district.

Green Bay’s $300 million Titletown District opened in 2017 on land near the Packers’ legendary Lambeau Field. It includes a hotel, sports medicine clinic and sledding hill, along with brewpubs and restaurants. The Packers football team developed the project with no public funds, although the team did receive loans from the NFL.

Pollard said CyTown will break new ground and “be the nation’s first multiuse district built on a college campus.” It will “capitalize on its unique location in the heart of the Iowa State Center to attract more visitors … complementing Ames’ reputation as an outstanding community to live, work, play or attend school,” according to the official announcement.

That sounds intriguing, but the announcement included few details about how it will be accomplished, or what the economic impact might be on the surrounding community.

Will CyTown be a catalyst or a competitor for Main Street merchants?

At just 3 acres, the project will be much smaller than either the 36-acre Kansas City district or the 45-acre Green Bay venue. It would be built in a parking lot where vendors now occupy a row of retail tents before home football games and other events.

The only mention of finances in the announcement was that “75 percent of the funds needed for the $200 million project will come from land monetization opportunities with the balance coming from leasing of 20 CyTown Suites and fundraising.”

There are many ways to monetize the land, but I’m guessing Iowa State will retain title, which means the development, unlike the districts in Kansas City and Green Bay, will not pay property taxes.

That’s unfortunate because a large amount of land in Ames, including the huge ISU campus, does not pay property taxes. A $200 million development could throw off roughly $5 million a year in property taxes, which would be a big help for the city, Ames schools and Story County. But it’s doubtful that will happen.

It’s also questionable whether the project can be built, because the location is in a flood plain that has experienced catastrophic floods twice in the past 30 years, causing considerable damage to buildings, including nearby Hilton Coliseum.

Pollard said the site could be raised, which might keep CyTown from flooding, but would only make future floods worse for other structures in the same flood plain.

There is also the moral/philosophical question of whether a tax-supported public university should be competing with tax-paying businesses.

Answers to that question have admittedly gotten mushy over time, but businessman Bill “I own the store” Reichardt, who died in 2004, had a colorful way of explaining the problem.

Reichardt, an Iowa City native, liked to tell the story of how his parents’ and grandparents’ business, Reich’s Cafe, was “put out of business in 1950” when the University of Iowa, faced with a temporary decline in enrollment, opened its eating facilities to nonstudents.

When I mentioned CyTown plans to a friend who is a big sports fan, he asked: “Who wants to shop during a football game?”

“I’d be worried that CyTown would turn into the next Kaleidoscope,” my friend added, referring to Des Moines’ unsuccessful effort during the 1980s to create a two-block-long downtown shopping mall on Walnut Street. 

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