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A Wild Rose, but first, thorns

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So Cedar Rapids leaders have been offered a Wild Rose. Accepting it would mean pruning back their once ambitious dreams of big casino with steakhouse sizzle.

Instead, they’d get a “boutique” Wild Rose casino with fewer slots, less blackjack and no steak. It would be tucked into a multiuse development across First Avenue from the city-owed hotel and convention complex, not commanding a sprawling site along the river. It would be a $40 million project, a far cry from the $174 million Cedar Crossing Casino.

Cedar Crossing was designed to wow the Racing and Gaming Commission. Wild Rose Cedar Rapids is designed to calm its almost irrational fear of casino cannibals.

An interesting proposal. But the rose has thorns.

The city and Linn County are still tied to promises they made to Steve Gray and other Cedar Crossing investors not to spurn their casino project for another license-seeker. The city’s memorandum of understanding with Gray’s group runs until October 2019. It originally ran until 2017, but city leaders extended it as they prepared to lobby in vain for a smoke-free casino license and gambling reforms.

Those ties will have to be untangled if Wild Rose is to take root. Our new casino builders on the block will need to make nice with previous investors who watched their dreams die in a 4-1 commission vote in April 2014. This may be accomplished using piles of money, but I’m no expert on high finance.

And all of this is merely fun and games until we find out who gets hurt, financially, by a boutique casino. I’m talking, of course, about the dreaded cannibalization effect, or how much a new casino grabs business from existing ones. Market studies insisting a Cedar Crossing would get much of its revenue from Riverside and Waterloo were fatal to its license bid.

This boutique is a response to that reality — smaller, fewer gaming positions, no glitzy amenities. Just a humble gambling parlor, not trying to make any trouble.

Wild Rose president Tom Timmons says commissioners he’s talked with are “open” to this idea. As Cedar Crossing backers know too well, early expressions of encouragement by commissioners are as solid as marshmallow fluff, and less nutritious. Until we see some numbers on potential competition, it’s all idle chitchat.

The wild card is Wild Rose’s existing membership in the casino cartel, with casinos in Clinton, Jefferson and Emmetsburg. The commission, even with the same five members who shot down Cedar Crossing, may look more favorably on a proposal from inside the club. Wild Rose’s founder, Gary Kirke, is an influential guy, having donated more than $130,000 to Gov. Terry Branstad’s campaign since 2009.

Branstad, incidentally, could alter the makeup of the Racing and Gaming Commission in April when the terms of commissioners Jeff Lamberti and Carl Heinrich expire. The governor’s spokesman says they’ll be evaluated “during the normal appointment process.”

But it will be tough to evaluate Wild Rose Cedar Rapids until we get those market impact numbers. We know how fast they can turn a casino plan’s sizzle into fizzle.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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