CEDAR RAPIDS — With a late-inning idea out of left field, Riverside Casino CEO Dan Kehl promised Friday to build a $30 million indoor water park with a bowling alley and event center along the Cedar River if voters Tuesday turn down casino gaming for Linn County.
Kehl’s proposal is a final twist in a high-cost casino campaign and in which Kehl’s Riverside casino reportedly has spent $600,000 to date on the Just Say No Casino campaign to defeat the Linn County ballot measure.
Kehl said he won’t build the water park facility if Linn County voters approve casino gaming Tuesday, explaining that a Cedar Rapids casino would steal more than 30 percent of the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort’s revenue and would leave him without money to pursue his water park plan for Cedar Rapids.
Voters in Linn County could approve casino gaming on Tuesday, but the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission then could deny the county a gaming license.
However, Kehl said the commission could take a year to decide on a Cedar Rapids license, and he said he didn’t know if in a year he would be in a position to build a Cedar Rapids water park. Kehl said his water park could open in 2014 or 2015.
Cedar Rapids businessman Steve Gray, who is leading a group of 60-plus investors in the Cedar Rapids casino project, on Friday said his group has said all along that a casino would serve as a catalyst for other projects to help rebuild the Cedar Rapids riverfront.
“We would welcome a water park and any other great entertainment option to join us in our effort to revitalize the local economy,” Gray said.
He said there is plenty of available city land, purchased through the flood-recovery buyout program, that can house a water park near the proposed casino.
“Dan Kehl should rethink his position and join us in making our county financially stronger, instead of threatening ultimatums designed again to trick Linn County voters out of the money and jobs our community deserves,” Gray said.
At the news conference, Kehl spoke in the cold on a vacant lot at First Street NW, just south of Interstate 380, which is a piece of the site in which the Gray-led investor group have said they intend to buy for their casino.
Kehl said his water park idea, like Gray’s casino proposal, will create jobs, provide a new entertainment option and will serve the city-owned hotel and convention center a few blocks away.
“So my message to Linn County voters is this,” he said. “On Tuesday, if you say ‘No’ to the casino, you aren’t voting against jobs or economic benefits to this county. You’re simply saying ‘Yes’ to a family-friendly water park and entertainment complex. … That is a choice.”
Water park land
Kehl said he was looking to build the water park on a city-owned parcel at First Street NW and First Avenue NW, which the Gray group is eyeing for green space and an expansion area for the casino project, which would be located across First Avenue West from there.
Kehl said he would pay $4 million for the property. Earlier this week, Gray estimated that all of the city-owned land needed for his casino project directly across the Cedar River from downtown might come with an appraised price of $2 million to $3 million.
Mayor Ron Corbett, a proponent of the casino project, on Friday had little time for Kehl’s water-park-without-casino plan.
“Are they going to give 3 percent (of profits) to charities in Cedar Rapids and Linn County like the casino will?” the mayor asked. “Did they say they’re going to help with flood protection on the west side? The casino is. Are they going to ask the city for any money to build it? They asked for public money in Washington County (for the Riverside casino).”
One of the giant tasks ahead for the Gray-led casino group will be to persuade the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission to grant a gaming license if Linn County voters approve casino gaming in the county.
One of the arguments that the Riverside casino and Waterloo casino have made is that a Cedar Rapids casino will hurt their casino business. Corbett noted that Waterloo has a water park next to its casino, and he asked, “Will (Kehl’s) proposed Cedar Rapids water park hurt Waterloo’s water park?”
Todd Henderson, a spokesman for Just Say No Casino, called Kehl’s water park plan “a game-changer.”
“The main pushback that we’ve gotten from these individuals is, ‘If you don’t like our casino plan, what’s your plan, what are you going to do?’” Henderson said. “Well, now here’s our plan, and we think it’s better and we think that family-friendly will always trump family-unfriendly in the minds of Linn County voters.”