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Building Momentum in Cedar Rapids with “Race for the Space”

June 6, 2022 | Downtown Cedar Rapids

Race for the Space in Downtown Cedar Rapids

Op-Ed by Jesse Thoeming, Downtown Executive Director

The Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance launched a program dubbed Race for the Space earlier this spring. It’s a business competition designed to support a startup, secondary location, or just about anything in between that has the legitimate opportunity to become a staple of downtown Cedar Rapids for years to come.

The winner will receive $20K that can cover rent costs for up to a year along with a handful of other valuable benefits. The exposure and limelight alone should propel them toward success.

We’re well over two years into the Time of Corona. The pandemic continues to impact our lives at every turn. While supporting locally owned business is core to the mission of the Economic Alliance, so is championing and promoting the growth and success of our community’s core districts. Fourteen years ago downtown Cedar Rapids and surrounding areas endured one of the costliest national disasters in our country’s history, the flood of 2008. Due to the efforts of elected officials, local leaders, and so much of our citizenry, this place came back in a big way. This crisis, however, has impacted all eight billion of us on this planet. Downtowns and core districts around the world are trying to figure out exactly what the ‘new normal’ is going to be once we’re fully on the other side of the pandemic. So many millions continue to work remotely, impacting small and locally owned businesses who once depended so heavily on the consistent foot traffic that comprised the Monday-Friday workforce.

While this dreadful time has taken so much from so many, it did offer a unique opportunity for millions. For months seemingly on end through 2020 and much of 2021, people were afforded time in a way that hadn’t been experienced by really anyone living. Time to think, and perhaps reimagine their careers. The workforce crisis is in large part a direct corollary to this set of circumstances.

Hundreds of thousands of people didn’t want to return to the jobs they had before. They wanted to do something that aligned with their core values and priorities.

They wanted to take control of their lives and careers in a way that provided meaning and substance, rather than just the rat race of getting by each and every day. And the effect of this mindset across such a large swath of the populace will be an explosion in entrepreneurship in the years to come.

The underlining aim of Race for the Space is to tap into this sentiment and cultural shift. While recovery from this crisis is much different than the efforts that went into the post-flood recovery years, it’s something every district, neighborhood, community, and city around the globe are charged with tackling.

While much of the workforce remains in limbo between ‘hybrid’ work models and extended work-from-home policies, there are other trends that favor the core districts and downtown of Cedar Rapids. First, downtown and urban housing have never been more popular. That certainly makes sense with the largest generation in the history of our country on the cusp of retirement and empty nest age. Downtown Cedar Rapids has several large-scale housing developments that are underway or are a few short weeks from commencing. Secondly, outdoor water and trail recreation are some of the fastest growing activities in the country. With ConnectCR no longer being a dream or a fundraiser, but a project that is beginning to take shape at Cedar Lake and the soon-to-be constructed pedestrian bridge in NewBo and Czech Village, this public-private partnership is exactly what our core districts need to be elevated to the next level. While much of the consistent energy and foot traffic during the standard work week remains down compared to pre-pandemic levels, there is little doubt that the nightlife has bounced back. Downtown Cedar Rapids has four outstanding event venues for live performances that are back and running at full capacity, while also having a unique blend of locally-owned restaurants throughout the district that rival any city our size in the Midwest.

There are several other specific developments that can be enumerated here, but the bottom line is this: cities are either rising or falling in America. Due to the work and foresight of so many civic, business, and philanthropic leaders and doers, Cedar Rapids is most assuredly heading in an upward and positive direction.

We hope to garner several strong submissions for Race for the Space and work with the winner to establish themselves and be a long-term success story, building on the momentum that was briefly curtailed by the pandemic, and using this program as a model for future initiatives and programs that look to support and propagate all things economic development for our community.

Any prospective entrepreneur or existing business should consider making downtown Cedar Rapids their new home due to this program. Uncertainty is the most precarious variable for any business owner. It’s no secret that we’re still living through tumultuous, challenging, and what can be overwhelming times. The benefits of winning this competition should alleviate much and more of that from the $20K vouchers, to build out/new design support from a top local architecture firm, a business support class from one of downtown’s newest and most successful local service providers, and a year’s membership to the Economic Alliance. This kind of support plus the spotlight the winner will reap will make the juice worth the squeeze.

To apply for Race for the Space, go to and hit “apply now.” Applications close on June 30th.