Both Sides of Linn County Casino Vote Answer to Public at Forum

By Rick Smith, Reporter

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By Ryan Jones

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Some snow maybe mixed with a lack of voter indecision resulted in a modest turnout last night at Coe College’s Sinclair Auditorium to see pro-and-anti-casino advocates go back and forth a week before next Tuesday’s casino vote in Linn County.

At the heart of the sometimes testy debate, sponsored by The Gazette and KCRG-TV9, was the question: Is a casino good for local economic development or does it hurt a local economy?

Amid the exchanges, local businessmen Steve Gray and Drew Skogman, who are leading a group of more than 60 casino investors, provided a few new details about their casino plan: They now strongly are focused on building the casino directly across the Cedar River from downtown between First and Second avenues SW and First and Third streets SW just south of Interstate 380 and not on the other side of the Interstate as they included in their options a week ago.

In answer to a question, Gray said the investors were committed to using local contractors and union workers to build the $80-million casino, saying both local contractors and union members have worked hard to obtain signatures on petitions to prompt the March 5 casino vote and continue to work hard to get out of the vote on the ballot measure.

Gray, though, stopped short of saying if the casino will have a unionized work force if it opens. He said that will be a decision for the management firm that the investors hire to run the operation.

Scott Stines of the Just Say No Casino campaign told the audience of 150 to 200 that he had been fighting casino gaming in Linn County for 15 years, and he said the current proposed casino plan is “not about real economic development, it’s about greed.” Most who come into a casino lose so a few investors can win, Stines said.

This particular casino proposal, he continued, is an “urban” casino not a destination casino, and as a result, most of the losers will be Linn County residents, not those from elsewhere who take their empty pockets back to some other county.

By his math, he said a community sustains $3 in costs from divorce, crime and bankruptcy for every $1 in economic benefit from the casino. Casinos hurt local businesses, he added, because people eat and drink at the casino and go home, they don’t eat at local restaurants and use existing entertainment venues.

Skogman disputed the numbers, saying that 50 percent of the 1 million admissions to a Cedar Rapids casino will eat at the casino and 50 percent will go elsewhere to do so.

Gray and Skogman used numbers to argue that a casino will help Cedar Rapids and Linn County. A casino will create more than 600 jobs, they said, and will generate $224 million in new tax and payroll revenue for the community over 10 years.

A Linn County casino also will keep Linn County gaming dollars in Linn County, they said, and won't lose those dollars to casinos elsewhere in the state. They noted that the two state-licensed casinos that now benefit the most from Linn County residents have filed reports with the state of Iowa noting that they are prepared to spend $1.65 million to fund the Just Say No Casino effort.

Just Say No Casino’s Todd Henderson asked Gray and Skogman “to put it writing” when they said won’t be seeking financial help from the city of Cedar Rapids for their casino.

The Just Say No Casino campaign has been critical of the casino investors and the newly created five-member nonprofit Linn County Gaming Association for committing to just the state minimum of 3 percent of adjusted gross receipts for the association to distribute to the community when other casinos distribute more.

Skogman said other casinos got local tax breaks and so could afford to share a higher percentage of profits with their nonprofit profit associations. Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson, who also was on last night’s panel and is on the gaming association, said the association agreed to 3 percent for now but the amount increases up to 5 percent after 10 years if the casino does well.

City halls have an assortment of public incentives they can provide to developers, and Skogman did not rule out the casino investors seeking City Hall support for items like sewer lines and street and Interstate ramp improvement that might be needed for the casino development.

“We don’t want special treatment,” Skogman said. The casino investors want to be treated “no better or worse” than other developers, he added.

Gray noted that the city owns about two-thirds of the property that the casino has its eye on, and he said the casino investors have now signed contracts to purchase the rest.

He estimated that appraisals on the city-owned parcels, which the city purchased through the federally-funded, flood-recovery buyout program, could put the value of the property at between $2 million and $3 million, a price that the casino investors will pay, he said.

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