We’d better get prepped, there’s much anticipation, we’d better take their minds off cannibalization. The RGC is coming to town!
No, surprisingly, I have not been asked to write a welcome song for the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission, which tours the proposed site of the Cedar Crossing Casino on Thursday morning, and then holds a 10 a.m. public hearing on the project.
Still, the atmosphere will be festive. Plans call for a pep rally and matching shirts and a bus tour of the west side, where backers contend Cedar Crossing will put a $150 million “capstone” on the city’s flood recovery and redevelopment efforts. They hope locals will line First Avenue between the proposed site and the Double Tree Hotel, site of the commission hearing, as a show of community support for the casino.
Having lived around here for almost seven years, this doesn’t strike me as the kind of town that turns out to cheer five government regulators, but who knows? It could happen.
It’s an important day, and comes just two weeks before the commission makes its final decision on the Cedar Crossing license application April 17 in Council Bluffs.
It’s been less festive at the other end of Iowa’s Creative Corridor.
That’s where the owners of Riverside Casino & Golf Resort fear that a Cedar Rapids casino will grab a big chunk of their business, anywhere from 27 percent to 42 percent, depending on which state-commissioned market study you believe. They told the Washington County supervisors last month, according to an account published in the Riverside Current, that a license for Cedar Crossing would mean the loss of 250 jobs at Riverside, the closure of the golf course, and possibly the spa, and a reduction in entertainment offerings. The local non-profit, which holds the license and hands out community grants, would lose $1.1 million annually.
Supervisors passed a resolution opposing Cedar Crossing. Petitions have been circulated, letters have been written and it’s likely that some Riverside folks will show up here Thursday to tell the commission their side of the story.
Cedar Crossing backers, who have written their own pile of letters, counter that cannibalization fears are overblown, Cedar Crossing will grow the market and that more competition will be good for the gaming industry.
“We’ve received a lot of letters,” said Brian Ohorilko, the commission’s administrator.
So the big question: Who is the commission gonna believe?
If I had that kind of clairvoyance, I’d start gambling. We may know more after Thursday. Perhaps poker faces will start to slip.
NO ‘MISSED BOAT’
But there is one popular argument against Cedar Crossing that the commission is likely to hear, or has heard, that they really should dismiss. And that’s the “missed boat.”
You’ve heard it. Cedar Rapids shouldn’t get a license now because it missed its chance in 2003, when Linn County voters turned down a gambling referendum 53-47. So we missed the last big round of casino expansion in 2005, when Riverside got its license.
It may well be that Cedar Rapids missed its last chance in 2003. And if the commission declines to license Cedar Crossing, there will be no maybe about it.
But the 2003 vote wasn’t a mistake. It was the right call. I was not here at the time, but after digging through the archives, it seems pretty clear. That boat was full of gaping holes.
There was a laudable, successful grass-roots effort to put gaming on the ballot in 2003. But after that, the train went off the rails. One company, Grace Entertainment, did push for a riverboat casino complex on the site of the old Farmstead/Sinclair plant, but local elected officials refused to endorse it or any plan. Leadership was lacking. County supervisors publicly opposed the referendum.
This newspaper also opposed it, pointing out that voters had no idea where a casino would be located, who would run it and who would benefit. It’s surprising it got 47 percent of the vote. And how would a Sinclair site casino have weathered the 2008 flood? I doubt it would have been built with a 31-foot crest in mind.
So you may say “missed boat,” but I say “dodged bullet.” Ten years later, a group of local investors with a real plan and the financial resources to carry it out put gambling back on the ballot and won with nearly 62 percent of the vote. The plan has strong backing from local elected officials.
And if 2003 truly was Cedar Rapids’ last chance, why did the state and its commission leave the door open to new license applications? No formal moratorium against further expansion was put in place after the last license was issued to Lyon County in 2010. Commissioners said only that it would be “three to five years” before new applications would be considered.
Well, here we are, four years later. And if anyone associated with the commission discouraged local investors from pursuing a license, I haven’t heard about it.
So under the missed boat argument, Linn County residents shouldn’t get a license for a good project with broad public support now because they were smart enough to turn down a bad bet in 2003. That may be exactly how it plays out, but I don’t think local voters should have any regrets.