Casino stakeholders debate opponents at Gazette/KCRG-TV9 forum

Vote on whether or not to allow gaming in Linn County is next week

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Snow mixed with a lack of voter indecision resulted in a modest turnout last night at the Cedar Rapids casino forum at Coe College’s Sinclair Auditorium.

Pro-and-anti-casino advocates debated at the forum, sponsored by The Gazette and KCRG-TV9, if a casino was good for local economic development or if it would hurt the local economy.

Local businessmen Steve Gray and Drew Skogman, who are leading a group of more than 60 casino investors, now are focused on building the proposed casino directly across the Cedar River between First and Second venues SW and First and Third streets SW just south of Interstate 380 and not on the other side of I-380 as they included in their options a week ago.

Gray said investors were committed to using local contractors and union workers to build the $80-million casino, saying  the groups have worked hard to obtain petition signatures to prompt the March 5 casino vote and continue to work to get out the vote on the ballot measure.

Gray stopped short of saying if the casino will have a unionized work force if it opens. He said that will be a decision for the management firm that the investors hire to run the operation.

Scott Stines of the Just Say No Casino campaign told the audience of 150 to 200 people that he has been fighting casino gaming in Linn County for 15 years. He he said the current proposed casino is “not about real economic development, it’s about greed.”

This particular casino proposal, he said, is an “urban” casino not a destination casino, and as a result, most of the losers will be Linn County residents, not those from elsewhere who take their empty pockets back to some other county.

By his math, Stines said a community sustains $3 in costs from divorce, crime and bankruptcy for every $1 in economic benefit from the casino. Casinos hurt local businesses, he added, because people eat and drink at the casino and go home, they don’t eat at local restaurants and use existing entertainment venues.

Skogman disputed the numbers, saying that 50 percent of the 1,000,000 admissions to the proposed casino will eat at the casino and 50 percent will go elsewhere to do so.

Gray and Skogman used numbers to argue that a casino will help Cedar Rapids and Linn County saying it will create more than 600 jobs, generate $224 million in new tax and payroll revenue for the community over 10 years.

A Linn County casino also will keep  gaming dollars in Linn County, they said.

Gray and Skogman said the two state-licensed casinos that benefit most from Linn County residents have filed reports with the state and are prepared to spend $1.65 million to fund the Just Say No Casino effort.

Just Say No Casino’s Todd Henderson told Gray and Skogman “to put it writing” when the pair said they won’t be seeking financial help from Cedar Rapids for their casino.

The Just Say No Casino campaign has been critical of the casino investors and the newly created five-member nonprofit Linn County Gaming Association for committing to just the state minimum of 3 percent of adjusted gross receipts for the association to distribute to the community when other casinos distribute more.

Skogman said other casinos received local tax breaks and could afford to share a higher percentage of profits with their nonprofit profit associations. Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson, who also was on the panel and is on the gaming association, said the association agreed to 3 percent for now but the amount increases up to 5 percent after 10 years if casino does well.

Cities have an assortment of public incentives they can provide to developers, and Skogman did not rule out the casino investors seeking city support for items such as sewer lines and street and interstate ramp improvements that may be needed for the casino development.

“We don’t want special treatment,” Skogman said.

The casino investors want to be treated “no better or worse” than other developers, he added.

Gray noted that the city owns about two-thirds of the property that the casino is eying, and he said the casino investors now have signed contracts to purchase the rest.

He estimated that appraisals on the city-owned parcels, which Cedar Rapids purchased through the federally-funded, flood-recovery buyout program, could put the value of the property at between $2 million and $3 million, a price that the casino investors will pay, he said.

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