Chewing over Cedar Rapids casino bids, commission is warned to fear cannibals

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How long did we have to wait for the first reference to “cannibalization” at the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission’s public hearing in Cedar Rapids Tuesday?

About 30 seconds, give or take a nibble.

Winner, winner, casino buffet dinner for speaker No. 1, Ed Raber, who leads Washington Economic Development. His county is home to Riverside Casino & Golf Resort, which previous market studies say would see its revenues gobbled, or cannibalized, by a Cedar Rapids casino.

Licensing a Cedar Rapids venue, Raber argued, would amount to a “state-authorized transfer of jobs” from Washington County to Linn County. Even a smaller, urban casino, he insisted, would inevitably ask the commission for “more and more slots.” Its appetite never would be satisfied.

This was a recurring theme among opponents, many from existing casinos. Licensing any one of three Cedar Rapids plans — Cedar Crossing on the river, smaller Cedar Crossing Central skywalking over the tracks to the U.S. Cellular Center or a Wild Rose Cedar Rapids boutique just across First Avenue — would destabilize the market and vacuum bucks from existing casinos.

Allow gambling in Iowa’s second-largest city, and one thing is certain. The cannibals are coming. Maybe this drama should be called the Racing and Gaming of Thrones.

“Nothing has changed in this market,” insisted Dan Kehl, reminding the commission that it has approved only eight of 30 license applications over the last two decades. Fears of cannibalization scuttled most, including Cedar Rapids’ 2014 bid.

But Kehl’s title has changed. The owner of Riverside who spent millions of dollars fighting a Cedar Crossing Casino in 2013-14 now is CEO of Elite Casino Resorts. Elite runs three casinos, including a new land-based Quad Cities joint added to the market with no fear of destabilization.

The Elite CEO now argues a Cedar Rapids casino would imperil all three of his properties. And the regent of resorts is no fan of his fellow cartel member’s plans for a scaled-down, Wild Rose boutique.

“Let’s not go back to the days of limited amenities and glorified slot parlors,” he said.

Todd Connelly, general manager of the Isle Casino Hotel in Waterloo, insisted its revenue growth and admissions have been sluggish in a saturated market. Former Waterloo Mayor Tim Hurley seconded that assessment.

“The market is saturated. The industry is flat,” Hurley said, predicting a Cedar Rapids casino would spawn “debilitating cannibalization.” Sounds painful.

But Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett wondered why these existing operators are “singing the blues.” No, he did not break into “Sweet Home Cedar Rapids.”

“But what struck me, as I was listening to each one of them talking about their challenges, I have to wonder if the pendulum has swung so far to protect the industry that it’s actually hurt the industry,” Corbett mused.

So much to chew on, and we don’t even have new market studies commissioned by the commission. They come in October, largely based on data provided by the same casinos opposing expansion. More cannibals are coming, I fear.

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