Corbett says he's in on Cedar Rapids casino for the long haul

Former speaker of the Iowa House said Legislature is place to start

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Don’t look for an aquarium or planetarium or any Next Big Thing to take shape for now on the city-owned, eight-acre site of the proposed Cedar Crossing Casino.

At least not if Mayor Ron Corbett has anything to say about it.

Corbett said this week that the dust is settling now, a month after the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission, on a 4-1 vote, denied a state gaming license for the $170 million casino project across the Cedar River from downtown Cedar Rapids.

In that month, Corbett said most residents who have talked to him have asked him to not give up on the casino idea.

“Just reading the tea leaves in the community, people want us to keep fighting for the casino license,” the mayor said.

At the same time, Corbett said no route to bringing a casino to reality will be easy, quick or certain.

Some possible options

Having said that, he said the best option likely will be a Cedar Rapids-led effort to convince the Iowa Legislature to grant Cedar Rapids a casino license instead of leaving the decision to the five appointees of Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission.

A Cedar Rapids legislative proposal, he said, likely would call for the state’s first “smoke-free, Blue (wellness) Zone” casino to be located in Cedar Rapids, a city seeking a casino to further its effort to recover from the historic flood of 2008.

Corbett, a former speaker of the Iowa House, said the Iowa Legislature has had trouble reaching consensus on issues related to racing and gaming, and he said it took the Legislature several years before it reached an agreement this year to limit unprofitable dog racing in the state.

“The Legislature knows that the Racing & Gaming Commission is in place to regulate and oversee the industry, so oftentimes lawmakers don’t want to get in somebody else’s sandbox,” Corbett said. “Working the legislative angle requires the art of compromise, and you’ve got to get the governor to sign the legislation.

“How easy is it going to be? Not very easy.”

In pursuit of a legislative solution, he said Cedar Rapids also will be watching to see if the composition of the Racing & Gaming Commission changes and if the governor appoints members who might favor “more competition” in Iowa’s gaming industry and who do not share the current majority’s “protectionist” philosophy.

However, Corbett noted that the commission chairman, Jeff Lamberti, and member Carl Heinrich have just been reappointed by Gov. Terry Branstad to new three-year terms, and member Rich Arnold has two years remaining on his term. All three voted with the 4-1 majority against the Cedar Rapids proposal.

Corbett said “most assume” that Branstad, a Republican, will win re-election in November over Jack Hatch, a Democratic state senator, though Hatch has come out publicly in recent weeks to support the Cedar Rapids casino proposal as part of the city’s flood-recovery effort.

Corbett said the chance for “wholesale changes”to the makeup of the Racing & Gaming Commission — and to the chance of the commission granting a Cedar Rapids gaming license — is greater if Hatch defeats Branstad.

The mayor said some have suggested that Cedar Rapids could convince the Meskwaki Indian Settlement, west of Tama, to buy the proposed casino site and build a native American casino there that would not need a license from the state commission.

However, he said the Steve Gray-led casino investor group in Cedar Rapids studied that idea two years ago and concluded that it would take four to seven years for federal approval and had a slim chance of succeeding.

The governor also would have to agree.

Corbett also said the suggestion that Cedar Rapids could fight the commission ruling in court did not make sense, saying such an effort would result in an expensive, interminable legal battle that could take years to resolve with no certainty of victory.

‘Exert some leadership’

Last week, the Cedar Rapids casino investor group and the not-for-profit Linn County Gaming Association — which by Iowa law would hold any state gaming license for the Cedar Rapids project — announced that they would remain in place and look for opportunities as they came up to garner a casino license.

Brent Oleson, a Linn County supervisor and a member of the Linn County Gaming Association board, this week said he, like Corbett, is not giving up on the idea of a Cedar Rapids casino.

Oleson has disagreed with Gray and the investor group, others on his gaming association board and Corbett who, in the past week, suggested that Lamberti as state commission chairman sided with existing casinos against the Cedar Rapids proposal because of casino donations to a Lamberti-supported not-for-profit project, the USS IOWA battleship museum.

In fact, Oleson on Tuesday said Lamberti was right when he told the Cedar Rapids investors to forget about commission support and ask the Legislature for help instead.

“I felt like Jeff was begging the Cedar Rapids investors, the non-profit Gaming Association, Linn County and the city of Cedar Rapids to get a political solution for the Cedar Rapids casino proposal,” Oleson said.

In voting against the Cedar Rapids casino proposal, Lamberti as a lawyer followed 25 years of commission precedent in not awarding a new casino license if it might damage existing casinos, Oleson said.

Oleson, too, said the election of Hatch as governor would be “a whole new ballgame” for the Cedar Rapids casino proposal. And though Branstad may be favored in this year’s gubernatorial race, “anybody can be beat on any given Sunday,” Oleson said.

He said he isn’t going “to wish and hope” that the composition of the gaming commission is going to change under Branstad, so any solution for the Cedar Rapids casino proposal likely will need to come from the Legislature.

For the Cedar Rapids casino proposal to gain a footing there, he said Cedar Rapids casino investors and local legislators will need to “exert some leadership” and be wiling to “get their hands dirty,” which he said meant not trying to keep everyone happy at the same time.

For now, Corbett said he’s ready to back the casino for the long haul, just as he and many other community leaders fought for a decade or more to see the Highway 100 extension, now under construction, and the new federal courthouse become reality.

Likewise, the city did not get approval from the Iowa Legislature back in 2011 when Corbett and others at Cedar Rapids City Hall first floated an innovative idea to steer a portion of the growth in a community’s state sales tax toward flood protection. In December, the new Iowa Flood Mitigation Board awarded the city of Cedar Rapids $264 million over 20 years from the new state fund.

“This is not the first time we’ve fought for something that’s taken multiple years to get accomplished,” Corbett said. “Highway 100, the courthouse and flood protection are all examples of how the community has had staying power and, in the end, we succeeded.

“And that’s probably the realistic view to take on the casino.”

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What are the odds?

Some of the possible options that have been floated for Cedar Rapids to land a casino include:

•Convincing the Legislature to grant a license.

•A change in the composition of the Racing & Gaming Commission membership — possibly through a newly elected, and potentially more sympathetic, governor in the form of Jack Hatch.

•A legal partnership with the Meskwaki Indian Settlement

•Going to court to fight the Racing & Gaming Commission’s decision.

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