Black Hawk County Gaming chair gracious, but worried, about Linn casino

Cedar Rapids casino could take up to 20 percent of Waterloo casino's business, Hurley says

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Gracious but worried.

That’s how former Waterloo Mayor Tim Hurley, now chairman of the Black Hawk County Gaming Association, reacted to Linn County voters giving 61 percent approval Tuesday to having a casino in their county, an hour’s drive from Waterloo’s 5-year-old casino.

“Before we got our license, we looked at Linn County — northern Linn County in particular,” Hurley said. Those early studies showed the Isle Casino Hotel Waterloo could draw 15 to 20 percent of its revenue from Linn County.

That could be what the Isle and the BHCGA stand to lose if the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission grants a Linn County casino license.

“If we took that kind of a hit, it would seriously slow down our ability to fund and leverage good projects for the community,” Hurley said. The BHCGA distributes 5.75 of the Isle’s adjusted gross revenues for community projects like the Cedar Valley SportsPlex and new football turf for the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.

“Now ... it is now in the hands of Iowa Racing and Gaming,” Hurley said.

Casino investor Steve Gray told the Cedar Rapids Gazette Tuesday it will take four to six months for the investor group to complete work required to submit an application to the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission.

From there, Gray estimated the commission will take six to 12 months to study the application before it decides if it will grant a state gaming license for a Cedar Rapids casino.

Gray told The Gazette his group will invest Immediately in engineering and design work to create a site plan for the casino. The construction firm, Ryan Cos. of Cedar Rapids, built the Waterloo casino.

“Like I said in the beginning, the whole thing just made me nervous,” Hurley said of the prospect of a Linn County casino. “I think the market is saturated, I can’t believe if they get a license and put up a casino that it won’t, in the end, hurt us. I don’t think either the population growth or the income growth is going to be strong enough to grow the pie for eastern Iowa for sure, let alone the rest of the state.”

Linn County casino proponents have argued that having three casinos within 150 miles on Interstate 380/U.S. Highway 218 — at Waterloo, Cedar Rapids and Riverside — shouldn’t be a problem when two casinos have existed for years within the city of Dubuque.

But Hurley noted market studies done in 2009 by the Racing and Gaming Commission indicated the market within Iowa is saturated.

“Dubuque’s got a lot further draw, from eastern Iowa to Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois,” Hurley said.

Hurley also was asked about Linn casino proponents’ suggestion that the proposed casino site on the west side of downtown Cedar Rapids, in the heart of the city, would hurt Waterloo’s casino much less than if it were situated on the north side of that metro area, closer to Waterloo and just off I-380

“I think that’s wishful thinking,” Hurley said. “The axiom in the industry is a casino is a casino is a casino. There’s not a lot they all can do to make themselves unique. If you’re sitting in Linn County, two miles to 29 miles from a casino, why would you drive 50 miles? Even people up here are going to go down and see what it’s all about. There’ll be an initial surge, for sure.”

Asked what if any immediate action BHCGA might take, Hurley said. “I don’t think we’ll do anything without being asked” by the Racing and Gaming Commission. “I don’t think we’re in the business of publicly opposing something, particularly when another county’s citizens have said, ‘We’d sure like to try this.’ I think if we were requested by the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission for input, we would send the message that this could seriously hurt what we’re doing in Waterloo and Black Hawk County, also those (counties) surrounding” which have received gaming grants.

Hurley expressed confidence in the Racing and Gaming Commission.

“Cedar Rapids, Linn County, is the second largest metro area in the state and they’re gong to have to be listened to,” Hurley said. “But I think that‘s a board that I’ve come to know. They take their work seriously and the do it as independent from political pressure as the can. My guess would be they’ll ask for a new (market) study. I would be surprised if they didn’t. It won’t just concentrate on the (I-380/U.S. 218) corridor, it won’t just concentrate on Eastern Iowa, but I would bet they’ll say, let’s take a look at the whole state.”

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