Cedar Rapids Mayor Says a Casino Would Complement City Projects

By Rick Smith, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Mayor Ron Corbett says there is no one in Cedar Rapids who has had a chance to vote against casino gaming more than him.

In his 13-year stint in the Iowa Legislature, five years of which he served as speaker of the Iowa House, the state of Iowa created the law to allow an Iowa riverboat casino industry — no thanks to what Corbett says were his unflinchingly constant "no" votes against the casino issue every step of the way.

In 2003, he voted against bringing casino gaming to Linn County.

But this time is different: He's already voted "yes" in early voting in the March 5 referendum to allow casino gaming in Linn County.

Corbett on Tuesday ticked off three reasons as a person and three as a mayor why a casino makes sense for Cedar Rapids and Linn County.

On a personal level, he said a casino will keep Linn County gambling dollars in Linn County, it will create jobs and it will provide another form of entertainment in the community.

As mayor, he said a casino built along the west side of the Cedar River across from the downtown or close to downtown — which casino investors announced Monday are their preferred casino sites — will result in another piece of the city's west-side flood protection system to be put in place.

In addition, the mayor said the financial viability of the city-owned hotel, now under renovation along with the arena attached to it, and the city's new convention center, now under construction next door, will be enhanced if a casino is build nearby.

The casino also will generate new property-tax revenue for the city, county and school district, he said.

"The gambling genie was let out of the bottle in Iowa 20 years ago," Corbett said, elaborating on why he said it's important to try to keep Linn County gambling dollars in Linn County. "So people are gambling and they will continue to gamble. I believe, when you look at the question, is it important to keep some of the money local, the answer is 'Yes.'"

As for jobs, Corbett said creating jobs in a community these days is not easy, and as some are added, some can be lost. He pointed to layoffs at Rockwell Collins and Clipper Windpower in 2012, as two examples.

"So whenever you have the opportunity to create some jobs, it's a good thing," he said of the casino.

At some level, he continued, a casino is not unlike a University of Iowa football game, an entertainment option which can cost a couple hundred dollars for tickets, food and beverages, he said.

"There are some people who would never do that," Corbett said. "The same with gambling. Sometimes people enjoy spending time at the casino. It's just one more thing for people in the community and around Eastern Iowa to do."

Corbett said the City Council will immediately begin to work on a development agreement with the casino investor group, Cedar Rapids Development Group LLC, if Linn County voters approve casino gaming in the county on March 5.

Corbett said the agreement will be similar to others the council has negotiated, like the agreement with Penford Products Inc., which allows the company to purchase the city's Riverside Park next to Penford's corn-processing plant.

In any agreement with the casino owners, Corbett said he will seek to have the casino provide flood protection to any portion of the west side of the Cedar River that the casino develops.

Corbett noted, too, that the local casino investor group, led by Steve Gray and Drew Skogman, has said it is building a casino, not a hotel and arena along with it, and so the casino will depend on the city's "existing assets" to provide enhancements for the casino customers.

As a result, the mayor said a development agreement between casino and city could require the casino to fill some number of the beds in the city's 270-room hotel, which will be called DoubleTree by Hilton at the U.S. Cellular Center when it opens this summer.

"And I actually could see a scenario where the casino group purchases the hotel five years from now," Corbett said.

The mayor also envisioned that the casino would underwrite a certain number of concerts a year at either the U.S. Cellular Center arena or the city's outdoor riverfront amphitheater as a way to attract bigger acts to the city while keeping the price of admission at a reasonable amount.

"Using these existing city-owned assets versus building or duplicating them is a benefit to the taxpayers," Corbett said.

Much of the land that the casino investor group is eyeing on the west side of the Cedar River has been obtained by the city through the federal-funded, flood-recovery buyout program. The money from any repurchase of the land goes back to the federal government's program, not to the city. Revenue from property taxes on the new casino facility is what comes to local governments, the mayor said.

"And again, that benefits taxpayers," he said.
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