Casino backers in Cedar Rapids say support for idea is strong

Four groups step forward to back development proposal

Near the top of the community agenda for 2013 will be a special election, expected on May 7, to determine if local voters want casino gaming in Linn County.

On Wednesday, the first workday of the new year, casino backers wasted no time to hold a news conference to say that community support for the casino is growing, and to give four entities an opportunity to voice their backing.

Those four are the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, the Cedar Rapids Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Building Trades Council and the Building Pros of Eastern Iowa.

Steve Gray, founder of Gray Venture Partners in Cedar Rapids and the leader of a Cedar Rapids-centered group of investors in the proposed Cedar Rapids casino, on Wednesday said the initial group of 22 investors has now grown to more than 40. The group includes Drew Skogman, vice president of Skogman Homes.

"We’re continuing to see a lot of interest build in the community behind this project," Gray said at Wednesday’s news conference.

Gray said the interest is coming because of what he said the casino will mean for Cedar Rapids: an $80 million to $100 million investment; 360 full-time jobs, with an average wage-and-benefit package of $42,000 a year; 130 short-term construction jobs; more than $100 million over five years in new revenue to state and local governments; $2.4 million to $4 million a year in grants to worthwhile community projects.

In addition, Gray said the casino will be a "lively, fun and relaxing place" even for those who don’t choose to gamble there.

Doug Neumann, executive vice president of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, said the Alliance was supporting "this specific initiative from this particular investment group" to bring casino to the Cedar Rapids area. The alliance has declined in the past to support another casino proposal, he noted.

"This proposed development, ownership and investment structure helps ensures this casino would benefit the Cedar Rapids regional economy by creating good jobs, contributing to community development and encouraging additional economic redevelopment and investment," Neumann said.

He said the alliance’s Business Support Innovation Council and the alliance’s board of directors both unanimously voted to support the current Cedar Rapids casino project.

Both groups were "greatly moved by compelling economic data" related to jobs, investment and community grants that will come with a casino, Neumann said.

Both the Building Trades Council and the Building Pros of Eastern Iowa, a non-profit group of union contractors and trades members, have helped with the petition drive now under way to get the casino question in front of Linn County voters, Marcia Rogers, communications director for the Vote Yes Linn County campaign, said on Wednesday.

She and Gray said the petition drive was going well, and Gray said they would secure more than the necessary signatures.

Gray said his investor group, Cedar Rapids Development Group LC, continues to plan for a May 7 vote in Linn County, which will be followed with a request to the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission for a Linn County gaming license, he said.

Construction on a casino could start in late 2014 with the casino opening coming in late 2015 or early 2016 if the local vote succeeds and the license is granted, Gray said. He had no update on where in Cedar Rapids or the metro area a casino might be built.

Dave Hogan, president of the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Building Trades Council, said his members have seen how casinos in other communities have led to new construction and building renovations because of the casino.

"This means a lot to our trades and our members," Hogan said.

Matt Olmstead, of Building Pros of Eastern Iowa, said his group was "excited for the economic gains" that a casino would bring to the community.

Marilee Fowler, president/CEO of the Cedar Rapids Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, on Wednesday said she lived in Dubuque some 20 years ago when Dubuque secured the first license for casino gaming in the state. In her time in Cedar Rapids, people repeatedly have asked her why Cedar Rapids can’t have the kind of "beautiful" redevelopment projects that Dubuque’s riverfront has seen, she said.

"And my standard answer (has been), ‘We can do those, too, if we have a casino,’" Fowler said. "A casino is one of the best corporate citizens you can have in the community."

Fowler said a casino did the same for Evansville, Ind., where she worked before coming to Cedar Rapids in 2010.

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