On Friday, we rode the Riverside water slide. Tonight, we’re pondering a landslide.
Linn County voters approved casino gambling 61 percent t 39 percent, according to unofficial results. I had expected a close vote. But it was no contest. From the 2-to-1 margin Vote Yes carried among the nearly 20,000 absentee ballots cast to the final precincts reporting, the outcome was never in doubt. More than 60,000 votes were cast.
It turns out that the referendum was the easy part for local investors hoping to put a casino on the west side of the Cedar River downtown. The two sides spent at least $2.2 million on pricey TV ads, phone calls, political consultants and a barrage of mailings, but someone forgot to order the election night drama. Only four of 86 precincts voted no.
So what happened?
Most of the folks I’ve talked with in recent weeks who planned to vote yes pointed repeatedly at all the other Iowa towns with gambling, Dubuque especially, arguing that it’s had a mostly positive effect. And those counties have voted overwhelmingly to keep gambling.
A lot of backers bought into Vote Yes Linn County’s argument that Linn County residents already are gambling elsewhere, and that a Cedar Rapids casino would keep some of that money in the county. The promise of new jobs also seemed to have considerable appeal.
And after more than two decades of casino gambling in Iowa, the warnings about social costs, addiction and crime have lost their punch. I’m not saying they’re not valid, important issues. But after all these years, a lot of Iowans are willing to live with them.
A casino project backed by local investors, names people know, was more appealing than the ill-fated 2003 proposal floated by outsiders. And unlike 2003, local elected officials lined up to support the proposal.
This time around, the outside money was coming from opponents, particularly Riverside Casino and Golf Resort CEO Dan Kehl, who fears new competition along I-380.
And anti-gambling campaign paid for by gambling bucks probably rubbed some voters the wrong way. I don’t think Kehl’s last-ditch Friday promise to build a water park in Cedar Rapids if voters turned down a local casino had much impact either way. But it turns out it that it was a clear sign that Just Say No Casino was trailing badly and needed a game-changer. Maybe somebody else will run with his concept.
But Kehl and other opponents can still turn their eyes hopefully to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission, which has the final word on whether Cedar Rapids investors can have a state license.
Tonight’s large victory margin probably helps make the case that the community is behind the idea. But the bigger issue is whether the commission thinks a Cedar Rapids facility will be a profitable addition to the state’s casino cartel or whether it will simply steal scarce bucks from other casinos in a saturated market. Much will ride on whatever outside market analysis the commission seeks to help it make its decision. Kehl and his fellow existing casino operators will certainly throw their clout around in public and behind the scenes.
And we’ll have plenty of time to read the commission’s tea leaves, because this is going to take a while. Local investors will be spending the next several months crafting their license application and sales pitch. As high as the stakes were tonight, they’ll get even higher.
So we’ll see where all this sliding takes us next. It won’t be dull.