C.R. casino dealmakers envious of city support Waterloo site has seen

Competing casino proposals in Cedar Rapids and Waterloo bolted into view within hours of each other Wednesday, with both designed to be the one that grabs the Interstate 380 gaming market.

The first of many hurdles to leap for any new casino proposal is a countywide referendum on gambling.

Black Hawk County and Waterloo vote Oct. 7; Linn County and Cedar Rapids, on Nov. 4.

After the Wednesday casino announcements, Waterloo Mayor John Rooff liked Waterloo's position - and, unhappily, so did the key players in the Cedar Rapids casino proposal.

Rooff said it was important to give Black Hawk County voters all the details of what they will get in a casino if they back gambling on Oct. 7.

The Waterloo City Council, a property owner, a local non-profit association and a casino operator all have inked a deal on an $80 million casino/hotel project to present to the voters.

No such deal has been struck in Cedar Rapids.

Here, casino operator Grace Entertainment Inc. of St. Joseph, Mo., has signed a contract to build a $50 million casino at the site of the former Farmstead Foods plant south of downtown.

But the Cedar Rapids City Council isn't part of the arrangement, and other proposals easily could come forward. Voters won't know for sure what they might get if they back gaming in Linn County.

"We think it's better for our citizens if they know what is going to happen and where and what the impact of a casino will be," Rooff said. Planners admit Waterloo plan better organized Wednesday. "They know what is at stake and this is the impact."

Jim Piersall, a Cedar Rapids attorney and one of five owners of the former Farmstead Foods plant, fears that Waterloo's approach is best.

Piersall's sense is that most counties in Iowa that have approved gambling referendums over the years have had a specific proposal from a specific casino operator locked up before going to the voters.

In fact, Piersall said Cedar Rapids voters have a history of backing projects only if they have all the specifics.

He pointed to the failed RiverRun local-option sales tax in June as an example of a project with too many uncertainties. Piersall criticized the Cedar Rapids City Council for "hunkering down" rather than working to identify a winning casino proposal prior to the Nov. 4 vote.

Mayor Paul Pate has created a Citizens Commission on Gaming to look at what the community should look for in a casino. But Pate and most of his council colleagues have wanted to wait for the Nov. 4 vote before they sort out specific casino proposals.

"Now in Waterloo, they know what the plan is," Piersall said. "In Cedar Rapids, because the City Council has been on the sidelines, it's hard to know what the plan is."

Grace Entertainment, which owns and operates the casino at Osceola, Iowa, said a Cedar Rapids casino will attract 1.4 million patrons a year and employ between 650 and 750 people.

Even so, Piersall and Grace conceded that, as matters stand now, they won't be able to tell voters on Nov. 4 that the Grace proposal at the old Farmstead site ultimately will be the one that moves forward if the vote is approved, just that it's the best site in Cedar Rapids.

The Mississippi-based Isle of Capri Casinos Inc., which operates casinos in Davenport, Bettendorf and Marquette in Iowa, has signed on to build the casino in Waterloo.

"Why would we take a wait-and-see (approach)," Waterloo Mayor Rooff said. "We've done that enough. And I think it was time to say, 'Let's get in the hunt and see where it goes."'

Jack Ketterer, administrator for the state Racing & Gaming Commission, repeatedly has said that being first in line to seek a license will mean little in getting a license should a few additional licenses become available.

Licenses are apt to go to counties wanting them which have the largest unmet demand and the largest ability to succeed without harming the state's existing 10 riverboat casinos and three race track casinos, Ketterer has said.

At its meeting Oct. 9, the state commission will release results of a consultant's study, which will show where best to put new casinos in Iowa.

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