As bus tours go, it was a quick one with a clear message:
The Flood of 2008 here hurt, and the ongoing recovery of the city, especially the hard-hit west side, needs the economic-development boost that the proposed $150-million-plus Cedar Crossing Casino project can bring.
With Mayor Ron Corbett at the microphone, the full-sized tour bus pulled away from The DoubleTree by Hilton hotel and convention center at 8:30 a.m. Thursday nearly full with casino investors, city officials, news people and the royalty of the moment — four of the five members of the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission and commission staff members.
Corbett pointed out that the city’s new convention center and its newly renovated hotel and arena are just a short distance from the site of the casino as the bus was already on the First Avenue bridge over the Cedar River.
"Which was pretty rough in 2008," he said of the river.
Immediately on the other side, at First Avenue West and First Street, is the casino site, mostly vacant land where flood-ruined businesses have been purchased in the city’s flood-recovery buyout program and demolished.
More than 1,200 flood-damaged homes and 100 flood-damaged businesses were bought out, most of which were demolished, the mayor told the commissioners.
The bus headed out First Street NW as Corbett pointed to the former site of the flood-hit Swiss Valley Farms plant and talked about the jobs that left town as a result.
Corbett pointed to the new flood wall across the river at the Quaker Co. plant, saying Quaker couldn’t wait for the city’s flood-protection plan to turn to reality.
In just a few blocks, the flood-decimated Time Check Neighborhood came into view, where blocks of homes along the river once stood but are now vacant lots. The average value of a working-class home here had been $72,000, he said. Some were owned by retirees with mortgages paid, he said.
Next was Ellis Boulevard NW, where new homes now have been built next to those renovated after the flood. The mayor talked about local private donations and local non-profit work that has gone into the homebuilding.
"The community stepped up," he said. "But there are no houses here that were sponsored by (the) Riverside Casino, or the Isle of Capri Waterloo or the (Meskwaki) tribe," making a key point of Cedar Rapids casino backers that those existing casinos and their charitable arms didn’t send any money back to Cedar Rapids "in times of turmoil" from the gambling revenue they get from Cedar Rapids patrons.
The mayor said, too, that the city had a lot of public buildings damaged in the flood, including its central fire station and downtown library.
"We had to build a new library. … We didn’t receive any grants to help rebuild the library from Riverside, Isle of Capri or the Meskawkis," Corbett said again.
As the bus turned back toward the casino site, Corbett pointed out other vacant property nearby that is now in city hands and ripe for redevelopment if the investment in the casino comes to pass, he said. He said the city has 115 acres for residential development and 108 acres for commercial development in a one-mile radius of the casino. He estimated it could lead to $532 million in development in addition to the $130 million casino and its $28 million parking ramp.
"This is where the opportunity lies," the mayor said. "This is where you as commissioners not only can approve a gaming license and support the gaming industry. This is where you can have your biggest impact on a community."Because we lost so many homes and businesses, the availability of land for development is bigger than in any other community. I might be so bold to say, I don’t think there is a license that the commission could grant or has granted that could have more economic development impact than in Cedar Rapids."