Cedar Rapids: 'Half Our Visitors Guide Is Obsolete'

Like many other dramatic weather catastrophies, the floods that struck the Midwest this summer left some areas unharmed while others were submerged and will be repairing the damage for some time to come.

Similarly, among meetings and events that were taking place as the region's rivers overflowed—as well as those scheduled for the coming weeks and months—some went unscathed, others had to alter their plans, and still more are weighing their options.

Several of Iowa's cities were hit hard by the unforgiving waters after months of heavy rain. "The floods rendered our downtown, and about half of our visitors guide, obsolete," said Tim Boyle, president of the Cedar Rapids Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Many of our distinctive venues and attractions were right on the river bank."

Among those were the National Czech and Slovak Museum & Library, the African-American Museum of Iowa, and the Paramount Theatre, a replica of a 1920s movie and vaudeville palace that was just restored in 2003.

Groups that still can come are trying to do so, but some likely can't be accommodated, Boyle said. "Many organizations are honoring their commitments, but all those places were used for meeting or event space, so it's a huge impact."

The Barbershop Harmony Society, a fraternal group, was booked for the Paramount this October but does not expect the theater to be restored by then. It is considering another venue in town, but the theater isn't the only concern, said Kevin Barker, vice president of events for the group's central states chapter.

"We're hearing from people that a lot of the downtown is flooded, and we need enough eateries within 15 minutes driving distance of the venue to feed 1,400 people," said Barker, who is based in Wichita, KS, and is considering a site visit. He is mulling moving the event to either Davenport, IA, or a city in Nebraska and returning to Cedar Rapids in 2009.

Coralville, IA, a suburb of Iowa City, lost out on a meeting of the Iowa Hospital Association that was slated to be held at the Coralville Marriott Hotel & Conference Center June 18 and 19.

Planner Stacey Nay, director of education services at the Des Moines-based organization, has rescheduled the meeting in its home city for next month. "The hotel was shuttling guests over from distant parking lots because, otherwise, they had to walk through 18 feet of water," she said. "We couldn't put our attendees in harm's way."

A call to a Coralville Marriott executive was not returned.

In Waterloo, IA, a Cedar Rapids neighbor, the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum was "destroyed from the inside out," according to associate director Kyle Klingman. The 16,000-sf building's exterior is largely intact, but most of the interior was ravaged, he said, including irreplaceable artifacts like a book from the 1700s.

Portions of the facility, which often hosted events of various types, have to be gutted while others need new drywall; it will take at least six months before the venue can reopen, Klingman said. Costs of the rebuilding haven't been determined.

Outside of Iowa, Columbus, IN, was struck, too. The Holiday Inn Columbus, the town's largest property, was evacuated and sustained water damage, though it did reopen within a few weeks, according to officials at the Columbus, Indiana CVB.The hotel's general manager declined to comment, however.

Other areas in the Midwest either weren't hit as hard or were struck mainly in residential areas. On the plus side, there were some lessons learned by planners who dealt with the floods.

"I always hear planners talking about requesting a hotel's emergency plan, and I did that for this meeting," said Iowa Hospital Association's Nay. "That allowed me to ask, 'What happens if it floods?' It made me conscious of my disaster plan."

Originally published July 21, 2008