CEDAR RAPIDS – Casino proponent Jim Cannon has done a bang-up job getting more than enough signatures on petitions to force a vote on riverboat gaming in Linn County.
But should the 62-year-old hotel security guard and his grass-roots group of casino backers be the ones deciding which local investor and which casino operator become part of any casino deal, should there be one?
That’s the nub of a spitting match that Cannon has launched against City Hall in recent days.
Cannon says he and his Citizens for a Riverboat Casino have done all the leg work, amassing 10,000 signatures to prompt a gambling referendum Nov. 4.
And yet he says they are now being pushed aside as the big decisions about a casino loom on the horizon.
Get 10,000 signatures and out of the woodwork come the politicians, Cannon said on Friday.
“There’s been a lot of mind-changing on the City Council,” he said. “They see the signatures and figure they better come out.”
Cannon is upset that Mayor Paul Pate has named a nine-member Citizens Commission on Gaming to study how other communities with casinos have crafted the best deals for the community.
The commission will advise the City Council, which ultimately will wrestle with most of the questions about a casino if voters decide Nov. 4 that they want one and if a casino operator wants to build a boat in Cedar Rapids.
Where is the best site for the boat? Should it be on public property with lease payments going to government, or on private property? How many casino operators are willing to build a boat here? Which casino operator will share the most with the community?
These are decisions elected officials are expected to make, Pate said Friday.
He suggested that Cannon and other critics are simply a bit confused about who should play which role.
“They are two different issues,” Pate said. “One is, do you want gaming in the community? And I assume that’s what Mr. Cannon’s focus is. “And I hope that he and others understand that our focus is about economic development. Like any other major entity that would come into our community, we would want to know if it’s going to be a good thing and how can we negotiate from a position that makes sure it benefits the community. That’s all.”
Pate said his nine-member commission features experts on economic development and community betterment.
When Cannon said Pate’s commission lacked “real people like housewives and laborers,” it was a reminder that Cannon’s motivation to bring a riverboat casino to town was two-fold: to have a casino provide an entertainment option and raise some local tax revenue; but also to defeat the local-option sales tax referendum in June that was supported by the City Council.
From the start, Cannon’s effort has had an anti-City Hall taste to it, and now, City Hall is positioning itself to intervene on the casino issue.
“Everything the city has touched before this has pretty much turned into a white elephant,” said Cannon, pointing to that oft-beaten dog, the debt-carrying city Ice Arena. “If you let the city get a foot in the door, taxpayers will end up paying,” he said.
At the very least, Cannon said the mayor’s commission should include someone from his pro-casino group and someone from those opposed to casinos. Pate said the commission and the City Council aren’t going to decide if a casino is good or bad, only what to do if voters approve one.
In the end, the City Council will need to pick among ideas and developers and casino operators, while Cannon and his group, for now, have aligned with one developer, the owners of the old Farmstead Foods plant south of downtown.
Those who have signed Cannon’s petitions, Cannon agreed, are asking that Linn County conduct a vote on gambling, not that it approve a casino in any particular place.
Cannon does have a shot at being a bigger player yet. His petition drive on gambling has flowered into his own personal campaign for public safety commissioner and City Council member.
The incumbent, David Zahn, won 85 percent of the vote two years ago.