For some a struggle, but many Cedar Rapids businesses recover from 2016 flood

Article by Allison Gowans – Gazette – Oct 2, 2017 – Photo by Adam Wesley – Gazette September 2016

CEDAR RAPIDS — Just over a year since a rising Cedar River prompted massive evacuations and temporary business closings, the final checks are going out from a fund meant to help merchants recover.

Jeff Melsha, owner of Little Bohemia, a bar and restaurant at 1317 Third St. SE, said the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance told him Thursday a check for $5,000 was in the mail and would arrive in a few days. That money, in combination with a $4,000 grant from the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District, will help him make improvements to his building’s exterior.

The flood that poured 4 feet of water into his basement may have happened a year ago, but the money he spent on things like a new water heater and furnace and the revenue he lost from being closed has made the ability to pay for such improvements on his own much harder; he said the flood set him back about $20,000.

It was the second flood Little Bohemia has weathered, and this one was easier to bounce back from. His father owned the tavern when it was inundated in 2008, and it took the family more than two years to get the doors back open.

“In 2008 we lost pretty much everything. That was bad,” Melsha said. “But I’ve been there 34 years. I’ve seen a lot. This is just one more chapter.”

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Economic Alliance Executive Director Doug Neumann said Little Bohemia and two other businesses, New Shack Tavern and Office Elements, were the final three businesses to receive help from the Jobs and Small Business Recovery Fund. City leaders in partnership with the Economic Alliance and Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation established the fund with the help of corporate donors to help offset losses incurred by small businesses during the 2016 flood. A total of $297,927 was paid to more than 80 businesses in grants of up to $5,000.

The delay in paying out the last three grants came because the donation-based fund ran out of money, Neumann said. The first wave of payments, to 44 businesses, went out in December, even as officials continued to fundraise. A second wave of money went out in March and April.

“At that point we were out of money and didn’t have the ability to make those three grants. We had advertised this program as a first-come, first-served program,” Neumann said.

He said the anniversary of the flood “was an inspiration” to make sure the final three businesses were helped.

“The Community Foundation and the Economic Alliance were able to come up with the money to cover the last three grants,” he said.

He said the fund, which came together quickly last year even as the crisis was still unfolding, is a testament to Cedar Rapids’ spirit and willingness to help small businesses survive after so many were wiped out by the 2008 flood.

“This had to be raised as we went, on the fly. The generosity of the corporate community was really immense,” he said. “It’s another remarkable example of Cedar Rapids’ resiliency that we’re proud of.”

Though a handful of businesses didn’t reopen after the 2016 flood, most returned.

“For some small businesses, a loss of being closed for a week or more could really mean success or failure,” City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said. “I think it was pretty amazing that in the midst of the flood we were raising funds to help these businesses. Thinking about other places that have been decimated by flooding, I think it’s pretty unique that a number of business leaders and the government all came together and put some dollars into a fund and handed them out.”

Tom Slaughter, owner of Tornado’s Grub and Pub, 1400 Third St. SE, didn’t take a grant from the fund but credits community support and hard work with keeping his business open.

Tornado’s was on the “wet side” of sand-filled barriers the city erected as temporary flood protection along 16th Avenue SE. He and his family and friends stayed in the establishment to pump out the rising water and ended up with almost no damage to the building — they had to replace a water heater after getting 2.5 feet of water in the basement, but it was nothing like the 12 feet they saw in 2008.

A year later, Slaughter said he’s still angry his business was on the wrong side of the barriers — the city said they had to be erected on a stable, flat surface like a street — but he is happy the restaurant still is going strong. In fact, he said, publicity from the event along with continued development of the neighborhood has doubled his business.

“People heard what happened and came out to support us,” he said, and many of those new customers have kept coming back.

Less than a block away, David Owens also credits community support with keeping him in business. A year after a foot of water poured into the main floor of his vintage furniture store Mad Modern, 227 16th Ave. SE, he still is working on repairs. He was closed for more than three months to repair everything from the plumbing to the drywall and is just now completing fixes to flooring and baseboards.

“I want to just finish it up and put everything behind me,” he said. “I’ve been in perpetual renovation mode for the last year, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, finally.”

He stayed afloat through a combination of insurance money, a $5,000 Jobs and Small Business Recovery Fund grant and another $5,000 raised through a GoFundMe page created by a customer.

“I was overwhelmed and inspired. I thought to myself, how am I going to do this? How am I going to pay my home bills and car insurance? I didn’t have a way to earn money,” Owens said. “I just thought to myself, this thing is probably over. … I never would have guessed that people would have donated so generously.

“I’m getting a little misty about it even a year later. I think one of the themes that came out of that flood is that this neighborhood is a close-knit area, and the people who do business down here are just good hearted people,” he said. “People who had never even heard of my business came down to help.”

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