Hold or fold, C.R. mayoral candidates vary on casino future

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Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett has been at the front of the bus when it comes to his city’s drive to land a state-licensed casino.

And I’m not speaking metaphorically. In April 2014, he actually led the Racing and Gaming Commission on its bus tour of the proposed Cedar Crossing on the river casino site. They toured the west side flood zone, where the casino project would help pay for flood protection. He and other city leaders called the project a “capstone” in the city’s recovery.

A couple of weeks later, the commission kneecapped Cedar Crossing in a 4-1 vote. A month after that, Corbett argued the city should keep pursuing gambling. Later in 2014, Corbett unveiled a Statehouse push to put a smoke-free casino in Cedar Rapids, along with other gambling reforms.

So Corbett wouldn’t take no for an answer, although he’s been less active in the current effort to land a casino license for one of three proposed projects. He’s been focused on running for governor, and isn’t seeking a third term as mayor.

Judging by the candidates to replace him, Cedar Rapids’ next mayor may be a less zealous casino cheerleader.

Nine days after the city election, the Racing and Gaming Commission is likely to turn down the latest license applications from Cedar Crossing investors and Wild Rose boutique backers. Baring a surprise, cannibalization from nearby casinos will dash hopes, again.

Linn County’s gambling referendum, approved in 2013, expires in 2021 unless voters renew it. Only one Iowa county has ever turned down a renewal. And the city’s memorandum of understanding with Cedar Crossing investors pledging to support only their licensing bids runs until 2029.

So a sputtering casino effort may continue to idle in the background. But among candidates for mayor, enthusiasm for keeping hope alive varies considerably.

“The voters of Cedar Rapids/Linn County voted on a referendum to have a casino in Cedar Rapids. Every other major city in the state has a casino. So why can’t Cedar Rapids?” Gary Hinzman, a former police chief and judicial district corrections director, told our editorial board. He frames the issue as a battle over local control, county voters versus Des Moines bureaucrats.

Former council member Monica Vernon is on the same page, playing the “second-largest city” card.

“We’re the second-largest city in Iowa. If you read the 1980s law, nothing, the word ‘cannibalization’ is not in there. And the gaming commission is just way out of bounds on this,” Vernon said.

Vernon prefers the original, full-service Cedar Crossing Casino on the river.

“I just don’t think, as the second-largest city in Iowa, we should be shoved into some boutique situation. That just doesn’t even make sense to me,” Vernon said.

At the other end of the spectrum is Tim Pridegon, a public safety chaplain and pastor of Lifeline Ministries. His “love, peace and unity” platform doesn’t include poker, slots and blackjack.

“We all know the love of money is the root of all evil. Greed, if we bring that in, it’s going to cause hardship,” Pridegon told us.

Lemi Tilahun, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin and the Obama administration, says no dice.

“Absolutely not,” Tilahun said when asked if a gambling effort should continue. “We’ve tried, is it twice now? Doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results is kind of ludicrous to me.”

Others are in the middle. A casino would be nice, but it’s hardly necessary.

“People may lose their appetite for continuing to spend money to get a casino,” said business lawyer Brad Hart. “We’ll be fine either way.”

“I don’t think it should be our first priority. But I think that we should have something in place and ready to go should something arise,” said Jorel Robinson, a community activist who works at GoDaddy.

“I don’t see this as ‘the economy’s going to go to hell because we don’t have a casino,’” said City Council member Kris Gulick.

But what about those pieces of prime downtown riverfront real estate left vacant and casino-less since 2013?

“Just to be clear, I’m not willing to hold on to that land and wait for that to happen. If somebody comes along with something else, I’m all over it,” Gulick said.

Ditto Council member Scott Olson.

“I think if we do not get a license, then it’s time to move on,” Olson said. “I personally believe we should put the ground that’s city owned on the west side of First Street, put that on the market, RFP. I already know of two developers, one in town, one of out of town, who are ready to present a proposal to redevelop that property.”

It’s probably smart. and realistic, to put casino hopes on the back burner and the land up for bid. The only casino buses in Cedar Rapids now are taking gamblers to other destinations. That’s not likely to change anytime soon, with or without a cheerleader.

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

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