Before ConnectCR was formed, two separate groups were discussing ways to make improvements in the Cedar Rapids community. One organization, the Southside Investment Board, was focused on the NewBo neighborhood. Composed of property owners in that area, there was a vested interest in its future and “knowing that if NewBo was going to prosper, the folks in the neighborhood were probably going to have to shoulder some of that responsibility,” says Steve Sovern.
Sovern, a member of that Board and avid bicyclist around the area, responded to the board’s interest in continuously looking for “what’s next to drive continued good development in the area?” It was the dilapidated railroad bridge that piqued his interest; a “Sleeping Giant” with the possibility of becoming a special and iconic bridge. It had potential, and there was proof that a bridge could reach a certain level of attraction already – the High-Trestle Trail Bridge in central Iowa. Sovern presented his initial idea in December of 2014, and he says the board responded with, “Good idea, why don’t you take it and run with it?” So he did.
Sovern formed a bridge design committee, accepted the offer of a local engineering firm to help, and met with many different neighborhoods and groups to inquire more about the possible interest in the community. It was all favorable and provided encouragement to continue the effort. Sovern credits that to “a welcoming community that had already dedicated itself to trails. People were already enthusiastic about trail recreation.” That was in large part to groups like the Linn County Trails Association who, along with the City of Cedar Rapids, had developed “a wonderful trail system,” he says.
While initial designs were being developed, another local group was focused on revitalizing Cedar Lake nearby. “They’re bookends of downtown Cedar Rapids and the trail system,” says Sovern. Given the proximity and similar visions, it was suggested that the two groups “make it one community ask” and become one project.
From there, the ConnectCR board was formed. Plans began moving forward for the bridge and lake and the fundraising efforts that would be key. Some were even quick to say that the group wouldn’t reach their fundraising goals. However, recognized community members joined the organization and contributed; so did the city. “The mayor at the time, Ron Corbett, said that the city should contribute five million. He meant it and he, along with a willing council, delivered,” says Sovern.
Sovern describes it as “Unique. Particularly when you consider the scope of the project” and the fact that it started with two completely citizen-generated visions. ConnectCR is now the largest, public-private partnership in the history of the city. Sovern says it certainly helped to have a welcoming city, and “It was strictly on the part of citizens that the enthusiasm for the project was generated…You light a spark that hits dry tinder. It lit the fire in the community.”