Cedar Rapids casino backers 'thread the needle' with options

Wary of previous denial, group offers smaller choice

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CEDAR RAPIDS — A new push for a casino in Cedar Rapids is getting support locally from people saying it would be a good addition to downtown, but there’s also skepticism state regulators would allow it.

“Talking about it is a good idea, but the problem I see is the hurdle in Des Moines,” said John Opperman, 57, of Marion, who was with family members Sunday in Cedar Rapids. “I don’t see anyone on the commission or legislators saying they support it. The same thing is going to happen again. I think it is good to have a plan, but I hate to get everyone all worked up for nothing.”

Three proposals have been presented publicly in advance of the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission’s application deadline Monday for a Linn County gaming license: the $165 million Cedar Crossing on the River on the west side of the Cedar River; the $105 million Cedar Crossing Central replacing the Five Seasons Parking Ramp with a skydeck to the DoubleTree Hotel and U.S. Cellular Center; and the $42 million Wild Rose Cedar Rapids “boutique” casino next to the Skogman building and kitty-corner to the DoubleTree.

The Cedar Crossing on the River option is virtually the same pitch the state commission rejected in 2014 by a 4-1 vote, in large part due to economic studies predicting heavy cannibalization of revenues from other casinos, including Riverside Casino & Golf Resort to the south.

“It was a larger facility that we learned in the spring of 2014 was everything we wanted it to be, but one thing it was also was probably too big,” said Brent Stevens, of Peninsula Pacific.

Peninsula and partner Cedar Rapids Development Group are bringing forth the old project, which had amenities and entertainment components to go with a large gaming operation, and also a smaller version about two-thirds the size that still offers amenities so it isn’t just a “slot house,” he said.

The two partners formally presented the proposals at a Sunday morning news conference at the DoubleTree.

Wild Rose Entertainment, along with development partners Steve Emerson and Hunter Parks, introduced their plan in September.

The gaming commission has a lengthy process for deciding if one or more — or none — of the proposals get a license. A decision could come in November.

Amy Opperman, 33, of Cedar Rapids, who was spending Sunday morning at NewBo City Market with her dad, John, and mom, Laurie Opperman, was supportive of building a casino in Cedar Rapids.

“It will be an income generator,” she said. “I think financially it will really help the city, so I am glad to see it coming back.”

All three said they preferred the Cedar Crossing Central concept, for among other reasons the likely boost it would bring to the city-owned DoubleTree.

Others cast more doubt.

“I don’t know if it can support one,” Bob Leslie, 58, of West Branch, said of a new casino in Cedar Rapids. “I question whether it is needed. You have Meskwaki, Riverside, Dubuque, Davenport has a couple. It would be good for the people here and good for the people who own it, but I don’t know if enough people would use it.”

Steve Gray, head of the Cedar Rapids Development Group, acknowledged it is a challenging prospect. The gaming market in Iowa is flat.

“We are trying to thread the needle of, one, generating new revenue for the state, and two, having less impact on other casinos,” Gray said.

But he said the backers won’t give up even if this effort falls short. “We are back and, quite frankly, we aren’t going away until we are told ‘yes,’” he said.

Cedar Rapids city officials are bound by an earlier memorandum of understanding to support the Cedar Rapids Development Group. The agreement is expected Tuesday to be extended to 2029, so if this effort fails the city would continue to support the group for years.

The city and the Wild Rose boutique casino have no such deal.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, who attended the news conference Sunday, called on the commission to look to the future of the gaming industry, and said the commission needs to balance all the criteria for a license and not just focus on cannibalization of other revenues.

“Industries have had to reinvent themselves,” Corbett said. “Think about the old riverboats and Mark Twain-style casinos, and what there is now. The commission has to look forward to how the industry can evolve and not just protect what they have in place.”

The Cedar Crossing casinos plan to provide benefits the community.

The Cedar Crossing on the River design includes a portion of the flood control system, and Cedar Crossing Central would upgrade the Five Seasons Parking Ramp, which needs to be replaced in the next 10 years at a cost of $35 million or so, Corbett and Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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