Could a Cedar Rapids Casino Extend Downtown?

By Rick Smith, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Business and property owners across the Cedar River from downtown met for two hours last week to talk about how to redevelop their flood-hit neighborhood where flood-ruined buildings have been demolished, some have been fixed up while others wait renovation.

The Thursday evening meeting came just hours after a local investor group announced it had launched an effort to build a Cedar Rapids-area casino. The group said, too, that one of a few possible spots under consideration for the gambling venue might be the very area on the west-side of the river that the neighborhood stakeholders were mobilizing to redevelop.

Even so, there was hardly a mention of a casino among the 40 or so people at the evening meeting.

Instead, property owner Scott Loggins, one of the meetings' leaders, talked excitedly about an assortment of visions he had for the neighborhood, which City Council members and others have come to calling either Kingston or West Village as they promote an effort to place a new name on the area.

The old Barron Motor Supply building, at 222 Third Ave. SW, had been an A&P grocery store, Loggins said, adding that maybe it could be grocery store again. He talked about building a new strip mall with 10 storefronts, and he said a two-year lease incentive could fill the stores up quickly.

He didn't mention a casino.

Only Don Karr, the City Council member and another leader of the meeting, mentioned the possibility of a west-side riverfront casino, but he did so only in passing.

It's fair to say that the groundswell for a casino on the city's west-side riverfront has yet to emerge.

Nonetheless, City Council member Scott Olson, a Realtor with Skogman Commercial and an owner of west-side property along the river, said his conversations with Steve Gray, who is heading up the casino investor group, have focused on two west-side riverfront sites, among others, for the possible location of a casino.

The first west-side site, said Olson, is the riverfront spot between the Police Department and the Eighth Avenue bridge, which is just down river from the city's new outdoor riverfront amphitheater now under construction. A casino located there could book entertainment acts for the amphitheater to attract customers to the casino, Olson said.

A second possible site is at First Avenue and First Street NW, though Olson said it would be a "tight" fit for a casino. One remedy for the site size problem, Olson said, might be the construction of a pedestrian tunnel under the ramp to the Interstate to get casino-goers to surface parking lots on the other side, where the flood-ruined former Swiss Valley Farms plant has been and is being demolished.

Both west-side sites, he said, provide good access to a possible casino, though the First-and-First site is a little closer to the city's new convention center and more visible from Interstate 380, Olson said.

Olson thought the site by the Eighth Avenue bridge had more room for a casino than the First Street and First Avenue NW site.

Casino investors Gray, chairman of the board of ImOn Communications and three other local companies, and Drew Skogman, vice president of Skogman Homes, last week gave the impression that they and their group of 22 investors to date are focusing on the riverfront in or near downtown Cedar Rapids as the place of a new casino. However, they said it's too early to pick a site.

Skogman, though, noted that a casino could end up on flood-hit property where the city's flood-recovery buyout program has bought out and demolished property. Gray added that a casino could be engineered with first-floor parking to keep it out of the way of future flooding.

Local developer Fred Timko is not talking about investing along the river's west side. He is.

Timko announced in recent weeks that he and others will build a new, six-story, 16-to-18-unit, residential condominium building along the river on First Street SW next to the historic Louis Sullivan-designed bank and the bank office building next to it. The group also will renovate the bank buildings.

A casino built correctly, Timko said last week, will be "a great addition" to Cedar Rapids and would work on either the east or west side of the river in the downtown, he said.

Timko said the downtown and the emerging mixed-use neighborhoods nearby, including the west-side riverfront and New Bohemia, are places where people expect a "vibrant" mix of activity and entertainment around them.

"This is not suburbia where you can sit in your backyard and not see anybody," he said.

After last week's west-side meeting of business and property owners, council member Karr, whose family plumbing and remodeling business is at 816 First Ave. NW, said that he and other business owners in the neighborhood do think a casino could help rejuvenate the near west-side commercial district.

Karr said the largely vacant area at First Avenue and First Street NW, which will be nearly vacant with additional demolitions, would make a nice spot for a casino, particularly because it would be visible to everyone passing on Interstate 380 next to the site.

The City Council, he said, envisions a trolley operation running on Third Street SE in the downtown from the new convention center and renovated hotel and arena to the New Bohemia entertainment district and back. And he said a trolley, too, could run from the convention center, hotel and arena the few blocks down First Avenue to the river and across it to a new west-side casino, he said.

"Beautiful, beautiful," Karr said.

A casino on the west side of the river, he added, might come with some funding for another piece of west-side flood protection.

A west-side riverfront casino, too, might once and for all end the community divide between east side and west side, said Karr, who grew up on the city's west side and still lives there.

"The river runs deeper than the Mason Dixon line in this town," he said. "But I killed the trolls under the bridge. It's time to make the west side and east side of downtown one whole core of our city and solid and developed and exciting. And the casino would fill in real nice there along the Interstate."
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