Time to consider new options for Cedar Rapids casino land?

Some want to take development offers for the city-owned property

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CEDAR RAPIDS — At least three City Council members say Cedar Rapids officials should gauge interest in a high-profile, city-owned site that has been on lockdown for several years in wait of a possible casino.

Others are holding out hope the gaming venue one day comes to fruition.

Interest comes as Cedar Rapids staff studies its roster of 1,000-plus city-owned properties acquired after the 2008 flood with an eye toward what could be returned to the private sector — and therefore to the tax rolls. Perhaps none are more desirable than the land pegged for a possible casino.

“I think we need to fairly soon put out an RFP (request for proposal),” City Council member Scott Overland said of the casino site along First Street SW. “We don’t want to sit on it forever.”

The vacant, grassy land saved for the casino consumes four city blocks — 8 acres — between First and Third streets SW and Second Avenue SW and Interstate 380. Proximity to downtown and the busy interstate makes the land highly visible and accessible.

“I am all for seeing what kind of interest there would be from the private sector in that site,” Council member Pat Shey said. “It’s a prime site in terms of access, and well poised along the river, the downtown and in Kingston Village.”

The property was seen as an ideal spot for Cedar Crossing, a $164 million urban casino proposed for the west bank of the Cedar River with projected annual revenue of $80 million. The eye-catching design would pop for travelers along the interstate, who could easily swing in to play for a while, proponents said, adding residents and visitors in town for a convention could walk over from downtown.

But, the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission denied a gaming license in 2014 and then instituted an informal three-year moratorium on new casinos in Iowa.

Count Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett among those wanting to take another run at a casino.

“As of this point in time, I think it is best for the city to continue to bank that piece of property,” Corbett said. “There’s no urgency on my part to put land for a casino out for bid. Eventually if all the doors close, we will have to address that issue.”

Corbett has championed the casino and pushed for alternatives to make it happen, including making it the state’s first smoke-free casino and allocating all of the city’s share of revenue to a flood protection system. Corbett recommends waiting until the moratorium lifts next summer when a fresh-faced commission — possibly with two new members — could be more open to granting a license.

City Council member Ralph Russell agrees.

“I’m not giving up on the casino,” Russell said, noting the opportunity with changes on the board. “I would not want to put that current site we have up for redevelopment without having an alternate site for the casino.”

The City Council development subcommittee has asked city staff to examine city-owned land for possible redevelopment. City-owned properties don’t contribute to the tax base, which supports public safety, street repairs and city services.

An analysis by The Gazette this summer found — largely due to the 2008 flood — Cedar Rapids has a glut of properties — 2.5 times more today than eight years ago. It's up from 561 in January 2008 to 1,305 this past January,

City staff prepared a report for the development committee of city land in “viable commercial corridors.” The list includes:

l Kingston Village — 37 sites over 12.6 acres, of which 58 percent are in the 100-year flood plain.

l Czech Village — Nine sites over 1.5 acres, of which all are in the 100-year flood plain.

l Ellis Boulevard — 62 sites over 17.8 acres, of which 80 percent are in the 100-year flood plain.

“We are taking a look at what is available now and what is the timing for what we could release for development going into the future,” said Seth Gunnerson, a city planner, adding an update is planned for the October committee meeting.

City Council member Scott Olson, who is also in commercial real estate, said developers are interested in the casino property although no formal proposals or requests have been submitted.

“If nothing looks positive in the next legislative session, we need to move to make the land available for development,” Olson said, referring to any future discussions about granting a casino license.

Unleashing high profile city land for private development has found success in recent years, which emboldens hopes for strong proposals.

Private sector interest spurred the city earlier this year to take bids for a mixed-use development of at least five stories on a city-owned parcel with a surface parking lot near the Paramount Theatre. The response exceeded expectations. City leaders received three proposals, including one for a 28-story, $103 million high rise with a grocery store, housing, restaurants and other amenities. Negotiations are still underway for the development of that building.

Last year, the city put the downtown Smulekoff’s Building on the market and six developers submitted proposals to overhaul the building, including the winning $15 million project.

“I don’t know we are there yet,” City Council member Ann Poe said of preferring to wait on the casino property. “I think it is extremely valuable land. Whatever we do it is going to be wonderful. Whatever goes in has to be something more than housing and mixed-use development.

“Something that could draw people off the interstate into Cedar Rapids.”

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