Opposition to Cedar Rapids casino proposal already emerging

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With both the Cedar Rapids City Council and Linn County Board of Supervisors on board, will the push for a new casino in the Cedar Rapids area gain enough support to be up for a referendum in 2013 and pass with a majority vote?

In a meeting last week with The Gazette's editorial board, Steve Gray said extensive research of Linn County residents says the support is there.  Gray is leading a 22-investor local group that is looking to win a license for a casino that would open in the Cedar Rapids area by 2016.

Yet in November 2003, voters rejected a Linn County referendum for a riverboat casino, with nearly 53 percent of the 58,000 voters striking down the proposal.

"Nine years ago, it was a very broad coalition," said David Osterberg, a UI professor, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project and a vocal opponent of a Cedar Rapids casino. Osterberg said the coalition of Democrats, like himself, and many social conservatives helped defeat the measure.

"My view of this is that it's simply a tax on the poor and it's going after addiction, the addiction of people who gamble," said Osterberg.

The next step for the casino supporters is to gather the necessary volume of signature to qualify for a county-wide vote next year. A simple majority would be needed for passage.

On Wednesday, Linn County supervisor Brent Oleson said this attempt for a new casino has more stable financial support from the investor group as well as stronger support from the city and county governments.

Yet the main question that cannot be answered now is the proposed casino's location.  The investor group said general sites have been surveyed, but not specific neighborhoods.  Amid the group's hope for the downtown Cedar Rapids location is also the need to avoid positioning a proposed casino too close to existing casinos.

Casino options have also grown for Linn County gamblers since 2003.  Casinos in Waterloo, Riverside and Tama are now open, unlike nine years ago.

Gray said a Cedar Rapids-area casino would bring nearly 400 full-time positions and millions in tax revenue.  Osterberg said those benefits do not make up for the social cost.

"I understand that cities are pretty desperate for revenue," said Osterberg.  "We don't give them many good ways where they can collect revenue from their citizens.  Consequently, they'll look for anything.  This is not a good deal."

The plausibility of a downtown Cedar Rapids casino would also be different than most other major metro casino locations in Iowa.  In Des Moines and Waterloo, casinos are on the outskirts of the metro area.  Dubuque's two casinos are along the Mississippi, but not in the heart of the downtown district.

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