After the decision: What is next for Cedar Rapids’ empty casino site?

Official says Plan B will take some time to create

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April 18, 2014 | 6:50 pm

CEDAR RAPIDS — Ann Poe admitted to a lingering disappointment Friday that left her as empty as the eight acres of vacant city-owned land where she and other supporters thought the Cedar Crossing Casino would go up.

A day after the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission denied the casino a state gaming license on a 4-1 vote, City Council member Poe was not alone in wondering what might come of the land across the Cedar River from downtown Cedar Rapids.

“At this point it’s hard to drive down there because we had the vision of the casino with a parking ramp almost ingrained in our mind,” Poe said. “It’s very difficult to imagine what else can be there.”

Poe, who grew up on the west side of Cedar Rapids and who has backed the $174 million casino project as a flood-recovery, economic-development investment for the west side, said the city needs to “regroup and rethink and be creative.”

Council member Monica Vernon, the chairwoman of the council’s Development Committee, on Friday said coming up with a Plan B will take some time because Plan A, the casino project, was such a large project with such economic-development potential.

Vernon, too, said the dust was still settling Friday, and she said the city still needed to determine if the casino idea “was completely over.”

There is no mechanism in state government to appeal the Gaming Commission decision against the casino project, and Mayor Ron Corbett, a former state lawmaker, again Friday doubted there was any prospect for a legislative solution at the Iowa Legislature.

Even so, council member Pat Shey, also a former state lawmaker, said he could envision legislation that would permit a new casino with the stipulation that it be required to share revenue with an existing casino that suffers a loss of business because of the new competition.

‘Amazing open space’

Vernon on Friday asked Cedar Rapidians to be patient as the city begins to take a new look at what the future might hold for the proposed casino site between A Avenue NW and Second Avenue SW and First and Third streets SW.

Vernon called it “a pretty amazing open space” that is next to the Cedar River, on busy First Avenue with ready access to Interstate 380 and close to downtown.

She said it is a “prime” spot for a development that can anchor and drive more development for the Kingston Village commercial and residential district that is emerging on the west side of the river between Interstate 380 and the city’s new riverfront McGrath Amphitheatre.

Vernon said she would oppose selling off the vacant property — which had been home to mostly commercial buildings bought and demolished in the city’s flood-recovery buyout program — parcel by parcel “without a very purposeful plan” for redevelopment.

She said the city had been developing plans for the Kingston Village area along First Street SW for some time as it decided it wanted to save the flood-damaged, historic, Louis Sullivan-designed bank building and flood-damaged commercial storefronts nearby.

After that, the Cedar Rapids casino investor group selected a First Street SW spot for the Cedar Crossing Casino to anchor the revitalization of the neighborhood, she said.

“The casino would have leveraged other private investment and faster,” she said. “Without something there driving development, it will take longer. But we’re not going to give up.”

Shey said that a downtown area development study before the flood envisioned that much of the area where the casino had been expected to go would become housing for those who worked downtown or otherwise wanted to live next to downtown. Developer Fred Timko’s new Kingston Commons condominium building on First Street SW is an example, Shey said.

Shey said the city continues to have a development agreement in place with casino investors Cedar Rapids Development Group LLC, which calls for it to buy the site for $2.2 million and pay another $732,730 for streets and alleys.

However, those purchases were conditioned on the casino group building a casino after securing a state gaming license.

At some point when the agreement ends or expires, he said the city will need to reactivate its property disposition process and see what kind of proposals it might get for the property. The city picks the “best project” through that process, and hopefully one that will spur additional development, he said.

An aquarium

Shey said there isn’t a rush to unload what he called “a very attractive site.” Whatever is built could be there 100 years, “so we can wait for the right proposal and wait until the market is right,” he said.

Corbett said residents already had contacted him with ideas such as an aquarium, a planetarium, a water park and some other projects in the first 24 hours after the state commission’s conclusion that a Cedar Rapids casino would take too much business from existing casinos.

“Citizens are encouraging the city not to throw in the towel and to continue to redevelop,” the mayor said.

Corbett said the new New Bohemia district not so many years ago was home to the shuttered Iowa Iron Works plant, the Iowa Steel plant and the Quality Chef plant, not to mention the former Sinclair meatpacking plant, which was demolished after the flood.

A new office building for Geonetric Inc. is going up on the Iowa Steel site, New Bo City Market is on the Quality Chef property and there is a development proposal on now vacant land behind it, the mayor said.

That has been 15 or more years in the making, and the redevelopment of the casino site could take time, too, he said.

It’s really a prime piece of property,” the mayor said.

“Our goal isn’t just to put it back on the tax rolls just to put it back on the tax rolls,” he said.

Corbett, council members Poe and Ralph Russell and City Manager Jeff Pomeranz rode together to and from this week’s Racing & Gaming Commission meeting in Council Bluffs. Arriving back in Cedar Rapids on Thursday afternoon, Poe said they drove along the back side of the vacant casino site and came down First Avenue to City Hall.

“We all just took a big breath and went, ‘Ah,’” Poe said. “Although we didn’t articulate it, there was this kind of collective reality of seeing it, knowing that it’s going to look that way until something else comes along.

“It’s going to be difficult for a while. But we’re a tenacious group of people here in Cedar Rapids, and we’ll come up with something. It won’t be the same, but it will be wonderful in a different way. And we’ll look for what that is.”

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