State Commission to Show Its Hand April 17 on Cedar Rapids Casino

By Rick Smith, Reporter

Rendering of the new Cedar Rapids casino, Cedar Crossing

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By Kayleigh Milas

DUBUQUE, Iowa — The Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission will reveal its cards on April 17.

That’s when the five-member commission on Thursday said it would make a decision on granting a state license for a 19th state-licensed casino — the proposed $150-million-plus Cedar Crossing Casino in Cedar Rapids.

Before then, casino developer Cedar Rapids Development Group LLC, led by Steve Gray, will make a formal presentation about the casino project and its financial structure to the commission on Jan. 9.

On March 5 and 6, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation will make its report to the commission about the Cedar Rapids project, and especially important, the commission also will receive the results of two market analyses of the state’s gaming industry. Those reports will spell out what a Cedar Rapids casino and a casino proposed in Greene County west of Ames will contribute to the state and what impact they may have on existing casinos.

Then on April 3, the commission will come to Cedar Rapids to visit the casino site and conduct a public hearing on the Cedar Rapids casino proposal.

After Thursday’s commission meeting at the Mystique Casino in Dubuque, Jeff Lamberti, chairman of the commission, called the two market studies ordered by the commission on Thursday “the critical element in my mind” as the commission determines if the Cedar Rapids project should get a state license or not.

Lamberti said he did not think a decline in state casino revenue in the last year — adjusted gross receipts after payouts declined 1.48 percent at Iowa’s 15 casinos and three racetrack/casinos for the fiscal year ending June 30 — will be a central factor in the market studies or in the commission’s decision about a Cedar Rapids casino.

“I think they (the studies) take into account that the economy is down a little and entertainment, in particular, is suffering a little bit,” Lamberti said. “But I think those studies are going to take a longer view of what’s going to happen in this state.”

At Thursday’s meeting, Gray sat with a City Hall contingent of Mayor Ron Corbett and City Council members Ann Poe and Justin Shields, a member of the non-profit Linn County Gaming Association that will hold any casino license.

Afterward, an upbeat Gray said he was pleased with the firms selected to conduct the studies of the state casino market and with the timeline spelled out by the commission.

“We have a lot of confidence in the judgment of this commission to do the right thing for Cedar Rapids and the state,” Gray said.

Looking ahead, he said he was eager for the commission to visit Cedar Rapids, and he imagined that he would take commission members to a handful of spots in and around downtown, including the casino site across the Cedar River from downtown.

“We will show them what it was, is and could be,” Gray said. “When you take a step back and look at some of those pictures back in (the flood of) June 2008 …”

He then talked of the city’s flood-recovery investment in the convention center, arena, hotel, Paramount Theatre, Theatre Cedar Rapids and the McGrath Amphitheater, and said, “Cedar Rapids really has a lot of momentum right now, and this (the casino) is another important piece in making us … even a greater city.”

Corbett said he was good to get a timeline put in place for the commission’s decision. He is attending commission meetings, he added, to represent the majority of voters in Cedar Rapids and Linn County who backed the casino project.

Shields said he did not think the current downturn in state casino revenue would factor in the license decision for a Cedar Rapids casino.

“With the well-run operation like we’re going to have in Cedar Rapids, the revenues for the state are going to be there,” Shields said.

After Thursday’s commission meeting, Dan Kehl, president/CEO at the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort south of Iowa City, said his position hasn’t changed and that he will stand in opposition to the Cedar Rapids casino license.

His company’s latest market analysis shows that a Cedar Rapids casino will take 39 percent of the Riverside Casino’s business, he said.

Gray’s own studies show a much smaller impact.

Kehl said a Cedar Rapids casino will hurt existing casinos elsewhere in Eastern Iowa, too.

He said the Riverside Casino was built, in part, to serve the Cedar Rapids market at a time in 2004 when the commission was looking to hand out new licenses and Cedar Rapids and Linn County had turned down gaming.

“So to put a casino in Linn County now, right in the middle of that very competitive market, … doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Kehl said.
Kehl has been selected to develop a new casino in Davenport, which has long had a riverboat casino that the commission and the community now want replaced with a new land-based casino.

Kehl told the commission that he, the local non-profit Riverboat Development Authority and city officials are close to finalizing an agreement. The new casino, Kehl said, is planned for a site along Interstate 80 at Brady Street. The site will make the Davenport casino more accessible to Iowa City — and Cedar Rapids for that matter — and Kehl said it is projected to take 4.9 percent of his Riverside Casino’s business.

On Thursday, the commission also set Jan. 6 as the deadline for entities to apply for a gaming license for a casino in Greene County, where voters approved gaming in August.

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