'Dirty politics' vs. 'Cynical implication'

The gambling referendum news is flying fast and furious. I've thought about giving these regular updates a catchy title, such as "CasinoClash 13" or "Slotsageddon" or "Gambling Referumble" or maybe "March Madness."

What? You say the last one is taken? Well, your ideas are always welcome.

I was tied up in meetings, etc., Tuesday and missed some of the action. I did note that Just Say No Casino launched its first TV ad, charging casino backers with failing to disclose details about their project, overstating jobs' numbers and understating potential negative economic impacts.

Vote Yes Linn County calls it "dirty politics:"

“It is disappointing that the opposition has started this referendum campaign with a dishonest, negative attack designed to mislead Linn County voters,” stated Marcia Rogers, spokesperson for Vote Yes Linn County. Rogers said today’s release of a television ad by the Just Say No Casino group is not surprising, since the group is represented by outside casino interests. These casinos are worried about the revenue they would like to keep for themselves.

“Some time ago, as an example of this, we were visited by the Sac and Fox tribe involved with the Meskwaki Casino, who wanted to open up a casino in Linn County. This isn’t legitimate fear about loss of jobs or gaming revenue, the Meskwaki group wanted this market for themselves as well. This is just dirty politics,” Rogers said.

“Last week we released two separate independent studies that cite both job and revenue gains for Linn County as well as the deeply positive impacts for our County, “ remarked Steve Gray of Gray Venture Partners and the lead investor in the casino effort. “We also announced the hiring of OPN Architects and Ryan Construction to assist our group in identifying a good spot for a casino. In no instance have we been misleading voters or not being transparent. We take offense to their false accusations.”

The Meskwaki reference stems from Rick Smith's must-read front-page Tuesday piece on the potential for a Cedar Rapids casino to take business from the tribal casino in Tama.

Last week, during a meeting with our editorial board, I asked casino investors Steve Gray and Drew Skogman, and their attorney, Doug Gross, if they had any new information on the cannibalization issue, or how much of Cedar Rapids' casino revenue would be yanked away from existing casinos. It's an issue that looms large if the referendum passes and investors seek a state license.

Gray said an analysis done by TMG Consulting says of the $80 million in annual revenue they expect the casino to generate, $18 million would come from nearby casinos. He said about half of that would come from Tama, with the rest mostly from Riverside, Waterloo and Dubuque. We also talked about how Meskwaki's marketing and transportation efforts have made it popular with Linn County gamblers, and how the Tama facility is not among the 18 state-licensed casinos regulated by the Racing and Gaming Commission.

In Smith's story, Frank Black Cloud, chairman of the Meskwaki Nation, and Tom Jochum, the tribe's lobbyist, didn't appreciate Gray's assessment:

“Why did he highlight our lost revenues, but not the others?” Black Cloud asked.

Black Cloud said Gray’s comments “strongly implied” that cannibalization of business from existing casinos is acceptable “as long as it mainly comes from the tribe.”

Gray’s comments, Jochum said, had a “cynical implication” toward the Meskwakis, who use their gaming profits to support a tribal school system and tribal health care system among other things, he said.

Gray on Monday said his comments were intended to be factual, nothing more. He said the market analysis by his group, Cedar Rapids Development Group LLC, determined that the impact of a Cedar Rapids casino would be felt most by the Meskwaki casino, he said.

At the risk of being cynical, it is the Racing and Gaming Commission's job to regulate state-licensed casinos. So its first concern, if a licensing process ever happens, is going to be how a Cedar Rapids casino would affect those state-licensed facilities, the revenues they make and the state gaming taxes they pay.

That's not to say the commission will ignore Tama's concerns, it's just that its regulatory purview means its members may care more about Riverside, Dubuque and Waterloo. Not being state-regulated has its benefits for Meskwaki. But that also means having less influence on state gaming policy.

But we're a long way from any of that stuff. And, as a Linn County voter trying to decide on a fast-approaching referendum vote, the cannibalization issue is not a top concern. The main issue here is whether a casino in Linn County would be a plus or a minus for local people and businesses.

Behind the exchange of ads and testy press releases, both sides of this issue have message weaknesses. As I've said before, I'd like to know more about the casino project before I can vote to help make it happen. So more details, please.

But I'm also less likely to embrace Say No's passionate condemnations of demon gambling if they're backed and bankrolled by folks who are making loads of money off gambling in other towns.

No worries, we've got a whole 41 days to hash this out. But much less time to pick a name for these updates. Please, help.


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