Cedar Rapids casino opponents launch phone survey

Opposition expected to include leaders of other area gambling ventures

Opponents of a proposal to build a gaming casino in Cedar Rapids or the metro area are organizing and are on the move, as the local petition drive by casino backers pushes ahead with a May 7 target date for a referendum on gaming in Linn County.

In recent weeks, the opposition has surfaced by way of a phone survey designed to assess how voters in Linn County felt about the Cedar Rapids casino proposal of an investor group led by Cedar Rapids businessman Steve Gray.

Jeff Link, a Des Moines campaign consultant to candidates and referendum campaigns, on Friday called the phone survey "a basic survey to understand where people stood on the question."

"I donít understand the confidence of the other side, based on the numbers I saw," he added.

Link said the coalition that is forming to oppose the Cedar Rapids casino idea will include those who oppose gaming on moral grounds, those who believe gaming is a tax on the poor and those who think that the state has enough gaming casinos and that a Cedar Rapids casino will harm others nearby.

Dan Kehl, an executive at Kehl Management Inc. and CEO of casinos and resorts in Riverside and Larchwood, is among those who actively will be part of the opposition to the Cedar Rapids casino proposal, said Link, a partner at LinkStrategies. He said he assumed the other casino interests in the nearby communities of Waterloo, Dubuque, Clinton and Tama that depend on Cedar Rapids customers also will be part of the opposition effort.

"I know in the case of (Kehlís) Riverside casino, it will be devastating to their property," Link said of a Cedar Rapids casino. "It will force them to lay off employees, and thatís a prospect thatís pretty scary."

Kehl told The Gazette as much in late June as part of a story about a phone survey taking place then in Cedar Rapids and Linn County that asked residents if they would support a casino.

"(I) t would devastate the Riverside casino. That (Cedar Rapids) is a major market for us," Kehl said then.

By October, Cedar Rapids businessman Steve Gray announced that he conducted the summer phone survey in Cedar Rapids and Linn County, and that he was leading a mostly local group of investors who would try to convince Linn County voters and then the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission to let them build a casino in the Cedar Rapids metro area.

In November, the Gray group launched a petition drive called Vote Yes Linn County with the goal to collect at least 11,872 signatures or 10 percent of those who voted in the November general election, a number required by state law to prompt a referendum to see if voters would allow a casino in Linn County.

On Friday, Marcia Rogers, communications director for the Vote Yes campaign, said she was aware of last monthís phone survey, which she attributed to Kehl and Link. She called the survey "very negative" to the Gray groupís proposal and "counterproductive" to the Gray groupís effort to education the public about its proposal.

Rogers said a casino backer was one of the Linn County people surveyed by the opposition group, and she said the backer wrote down the survey questions and provided them to the Vote Yes campaign.

The survey, Rogers said, asked people if they realized that restaurants and bars in Cedar Rapids would lose business and be forced to close with a Cedar Rapids casino and that jobs would be lost at other nearby casinos as well.

Most upsetting, Rogers said, was a question that pointed out that Steve Gray had been an executive at the former McLeodUSA telecommunications firm at a time more than a decade ago when shareholders lost millions of dollars.

"This is just making insinuations" at a time when the Vote Yes campaign is trying to educate voters so they can make "a wise choice," Rogers said.

Link said he doesnít comment about surveys that he is a part of, but he promised that residents of Linn County would be hearing more from casino opponents.

"The truth is, the dialogue has been one-sided because only one side has been speaking. And I think thatís going to change pretty quickly," he said.

Link predicted that the Vote Yes campaign will find that amassing some 12,000 petition signatures will be more difficult than the campaign first thought. But he added that the Gray groupís biggest hurdle will be with the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission, not with Linn County voters.

In 2010, the commission said that it thought that the state had reached the saturation point for casinos except, perhaps, in the Des Moines metro area. The commission said then that it wanted to wait three to five years before it considers any new casino licenses.

Link said on Friday that nothing has changed since 2010, though Gray has said that much has changed, adding that 2013 will mark three years since the state commission made it decision.

Link said the commission wonít like the Cedar Rapids casino proposal because it will cannibalize the customer base of nearby casinos, wonít attract out-of-state customers and wonít serve as a tourist attraction.

Gray, of Gray Venture Partners LLC, has said an $85 million casino in Cedar Rapids or the metro area will create 490 jobs, generate revenue for the community and keep Linn County gambling dollars in Linn County.

Vote Yesí Rogers has said the petition drive, still in its early stages, already has obtained more than 4,000 signatures.

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