Casino investors focus on two 'riverfront' sites

Both on west side of Cedar River; one across from downtown, one across from Quaker Oats

Rick Smith
Published: February 18 2013 | 3:07 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 11:37 am in
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UPDATE:

CEDAR RAPIDS — Local casino investors and their site and construction consultants say the best place for a casino in Linn County is near Interstate 380 across the Cedar River from either downtown or just to the north across from the Quaker Oats plant.

At a Monday afternoon news conference at the offices of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, casino investor Steve Gray said either of the two west-side Cedar Rapids spots are sufficiently close to the city’s new convention center and newly renovated hotel and arena to help those venues prosper along with a new casino.

Cedar Rapids taxpayers have invested much in the convention complex and hotel projects, and the casino should help the hotel fill up rooms and it can provide some financial backing to bring entertainment to the arena, Gray said.

"Then it becomes a win, win, win." he said. "It becomes a win for us (casino investors), it’s great for the city and it’s great for taxpayers."

Gray said, too, that a casino’s west-side location will be close to the city’s new riverfront amphitheater and to a new residential condominium project going up on First Street SW, an area which he said had the early makings of an entertainment and residential area like the Lower Downtown in Denver, Colo., he said.

Gray and his investor group, Cedar Rapids Development Group LLC, hired local firms Ryan Companies US Inc. and OPN Architects Inc. to help them pinpoint the preferred site from among 21 options.

Marc Gullickson, president of Iowa operations for Ryan Companies US Inc., on Monday said the casino operation likely will built either on 6.5-plus acres of property at the Cedar River just south of the Interstate 380 across from downtown or on 13 acres along the river just north of Interstate 380 across from the Quaker plant. It’s apt to be one or the other, Gullickson said.

For now, he said the investors are looking at both spots, south and north of the Interstate 380 at the river, to retain flexibility should problems arise at either of the two areas.

At the same time, Gray revealed that the investors just on Monday signed a contract to purchase property in the block between First and Second avenues SW directly across from downtown Cedar Rapids.

Gray said, too, that the Cedar Rapids City Council will play a role in determining the final placement of the casino because the city now owns much of the property as part of the flood-recovery buyout of flood-damaged property.

Mayor Ron Corbett on Monday didn’t disagree.

"Now that they’ve selected Cedar Rapids as the home site of the casino, we’re going to be front and center as far as negotiating the exact specific location and the details of a development agreement," Corbett said after the Monday news conference.

Much of the property identified for the casino site sits in the 100-year flood plain and will need to be elevated about a foot and half to comply with the city’s flood plain ordinance. A level of parking, designed to take on water, may be part of any design.

Gray also said the construction of the casino may come with a flood wall similar to the wall outside the Quaker plant across the river.

Part of the push to identify a site before the March 5 casino vote came from complaints by anti-casino group Just Say No Casino, which has accused the investors of not disclosing enough about the casino proposal.

Selecting a site, too, comes with a look beyond the March 5 vote to the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission, from which the Cedar Rapids investor group will need to secure a state gaming license should Linn County voters approve casino gaming on March 5.

In its deliberations, the state commission will look to see if a Cedar Rapids casino creates new casino business for the state or simply cannibalizes existing business from the new, nearby casinos in Riverside and Waterloo.

Picking a site for a Cedar Rapids casino on the north side of the Cedar Rapids metro area, perhaps at Hiawatha, moves a casino closer to the Waterloo casino while a site on the city’s south side out by The Eastern Iowa Airport moves it closer to Riverside. Downtown Cedar Rapids may be the best place to get as far away from both the Riverside and Waterloo casinos at the same time as possible.

In reviewing possible casino sites, Gullickson said visibility, accessibility, proximity to Interstate 380, the ability to obtain property and the ability to expand mattered most.

Earlier Monday, Albert Aossey doubted that a casino would be coming to the spot at First Avenue SW and Second Street SW across from downtown where his family owns a building that it leases to a barbershop and appliance store. Much has been bought out and demolished around it. At the same time, he said he wasn’t opposed to selling the family’s building if a casino needed the property.

"For a reasonable price, everything I have is for sale," Aossey said.

One of the tenants in a commercial building at 128 Second Ave. SW is Ron Bentley’s Bentley Watch Repair, and Bentley on Monday said the building owner and tenants renovated the building in 2003 and then again after the 2008 flood wrecked the building.

"It would be tough for us," Bentley said of any move to make way for a casino. "We’re established in this area. We put a lot of money in this building, twice." But then he added, good-naturedly, "I wouldn’t get too shook up until I see the bulldozers pull up."

Developer Fred Timko and a group of investors now are renovating the former Wells Fargo Bank building at 101 Third Ave. SW and will build a new six-story condominium tower next to it facing the Cedar River. A casino a block away would be fine, he said.

City Council member Don Karr, a west-side Cedar Rapidian and an advocate for redevelopment of the flood-hit commercial district across from downtown, on Monday said the casino would be "a huge catalyst" for bringing that part of the city back to life.

"The west side is a destruction zone, and it’s time for a construction zone," Karr said.

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UPDATE: Cedar Rapids area casino investors announced at a news conference Monday afternoon that they've selected an area dubbed the "Riverfront" as the location for a new casino, if a gambling referendum is approved by Linn County voters March 5.

Check back for updates.

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EARLIER STORY:

At an afternoon news conference today, investors in a proposed Cedar Rapids casino will reveal where they think the best site or sites is for their gaming venue.

But didn’t one of the leading casino investors, Drew Skogman, all but reveal the preferred site last week at a public forum in Cedar Rapids?

He seemed to do so when he disputed the contention from those opposed to the casino that people go to the casino, eat, drink and gamble, then go home and nowhere else.

Skogman insisted that a new Cedar Rapids casino will bring at least 1 million people a year through its doors, and he noted that Cedar Rapids’ new convention center and riverfront amphitheater, and the city’s newly renovated hotel and Paramount Theatre and the renovated Theatre Cedar Rapids, "need people."

"This is our vision for it (the casino)," Skogman said.

Didn’t that translate into a casino site in or all-but in downtown?

Skogman and Steve Gray, who have been the spokesmen for the investor group Cedar Rapids Development Group LLC, have said a Cedar Rapids area casino would go somewhere between Boyson Road at Hiawatha and 33rd Avenue SW on Cedar Rapids’ south side and along Interstate 380.

Gray also has said the investors would need five or six acres or more for a casino.

An acre is 43,560 square feet, and a typical Cedar Rapids city block contains about 2 acres.

One downtown area with potentially that amount of space, and at the same time close to Interstate 380, might sit directly across the Cedar River from downtown, where much of the property has been purchased by the city in its flood-recovery buyout program.

This is among sites that Gray earlier has said might work for a casino.

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