OPINION

Cedar Rapids casino land waits for plans

The proposed casino site in Cedar Rapids sits on the west side of the river between First and Second Avenues SW, seen on Monday, May 6, 2013. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)
The proposed casino site in Cedar Rapids sits on the west side of the river between First and Second Avenues SW, seen on Monday, May 6, 2013. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

It’s one of the most common questions I get from readers. “What’s up with that downtown Cedar Rapids casino site, now that it appears to be permanently casino-free?”

Well, I drove by the city-owned site a couple of times last week and can confirm all is quiet. Beyond grass growing, there’s not much excitement. Once, it was a blank canvass where local movers and shakers boldly painted the possibilities of high-stakes gaming, top-notch entertainment and thick, juicy steaks cooked just the way we like them. It was not to be, thanks to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.

And it likely will remain quiet for a while. Mayor Ron Corbett says no developers have as of yet stepped forward with plans for the site, or sites, if the city divides it up. If a developer comes with a plan, and asks the city to put land up for sale, the city can make a request for bids. Other developers could float their own proposals for the land.

That’s what happened with city-owned land at Third Avenue SE and First Street SE, where officials now are considering plans for One Park Place, a 28-story multiuse high-rise. It’s one of three development bids submitted for the site.

Corbett says he’s not surprised the casino site hasn’t drawn interest yet. Most go-to local and regional developers are knee-deep in multiple projects downtown, in the New Bohemia neighborhood and other parts of the city. He expects the casino site to have its turn within the next couple of years, barring some miracle that revives gambling plans.

Otherwise, Cedar Rapids’ casino ambitions will linger on like a big, dormant volcano. Could it ever erupt again? Maybe, but probably not without a seismic shift in the state’s gambling landscape. Don’t hold your breath.

The commission, and the casino cartel it regulates, will continue to take care of their own. That’s why Cedar Rapids investors can’t build a casino for fear of cannibalizing revenue from Riverside Casino, but Riverside CEO Dan Kehl can open a new $110 million land-based casino in Davenport just 65 miles away. It opened earlier this month, with a hotel, two restaurants and 800 slot machines. “Glitzy” and “spacious,” according to the Quad-City Times.

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Our gaming commission says its mission is to protect large casino investments from too much competition. If you like competition, go to the Iowa Economic Development Authority board, which this month committed $12 million to Coralville for a $70 million arena project that will compete directly with the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids.

The renovated cell center reopened in 2013 as part of a $144 million investment in a new Convention Complex and a revamped DoubleTree hotel.

Now, I’m not suggesting Coralville’s request should have been turned down. I’m just pointing out how our state treats its casino cartel much differently than it handles other economic pursuits not including slots and roulette.

So, curious readers, the Cedar Rapids casino site will remain undeveloped for the time being. It’s a good bet developers will be interested, eventually. But if you want to place an actual bet, you’ll need to hit the interstate.

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

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