Move on, the casino chase is going nowhere

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Once, we had dreams of a smoke-free Cedar Crossing Casino in Cedar Rapids. It would have been grand.

For one thing, without musty, poisonous tobacco smoke, the raw, pungent smells of greed and desperation can really come through.

And steak! Don’t forget we were getting a steakhouse. I can’t.

But now, our leaders under the Golden Dome have stuck a pair of sharp forks in those steaky dreams. They’re done, it seems. Charred, even.

First, Gov. Terry Branstad reappointed Kristine Kramer of New Hampton to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission. She was an emphatic “no” in the 4-1 vote against a Cedar Rapids Casino.

There were local hopes that Branstad might appoint a more Cedar Crossing-sympathetic eastern Iowan to the panel. Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said former mayor Lee Clancey, local lawyer Lynn Hartman and banker Donna Sorensen each applied. No dice.

So the commission stays as-is: Standing an ever vigilant guard against the scourges of cannibalization and saturation.

Then, state Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids, failed on Thursday to muster enough votes to get a bill through the State Government Committee that would have directed the commission to put a smoke free casino in a city with more than 50,000 people, also known as Cedar Rapids. Even if the bill had survived that committee, the measure was a mere shadow of the ambitious gambling reform measure unveiled by local leaders back in December.

So we’ve got last April’s commission vote, the Legislature’s rejection and the governor’s reappointment. As any old umpire will tell you, three strikes means you’re out. Game over. No joy in Slotsville.

Easy for me to say. I didn’t sink blood, sweat and treasure into this thing. All I did was become addicted to writing about gambling. I’ll be entering the Ian Fleming Clinic later this month.

I understand why some folks aren’t giving up and letting this go. Breaking up is hard to do.

But I can’t be both intellectually honest and also say this thing still has a chance. Even a small one. I just don’t see it.

The Legislature is not interested in messing with its $331 million cash cow, so long as the money rolls in. That’s especially true of the many powerful legislators who have casinos in their backyards. And that’s why the casino lobby is so successful at the Statehouse.

The gaming commission remains a bouncer guarding the casino club, keeping out undesirable competition. Members may change, but it will always have “independent” market studies, done by companies dependent on casino business, showing new competition would, surprise, hurt casinos.

And like it or not, that’s how most Iowans and their elected leaders seem to like it. We don’t really want free-range gambling in every town, city, gas station, restaurant and laundromat.

Sure, I hear from plenty of folks who think it should be an unfettered open market. I’m very sympathetic to that argument, especially when folks vote overwhelmingly for gambling.

But I haven’t seen any signs of the fundamental changes in Iowa’s social and political landscape needed to make it so. Most Iowans, it seems, like the way things are. Lawmakers love the lucrative status-quo.

I don’t see much, or maybe any, sign of this changing. Not in three years or five years or 10 years.

“The roads to approval of a casino are looking very narrow at this point in time,” Corbett told our editorial board.

I’d say the roads are 100 percent rejection-covered.

And yet, he’s not giving up.

Corbett says the 2013 Linn County referendum is good for eight years, so why stop now? He’ll take his effort back the same Legislature next year. Commission seats come up for reappointment in 2016 and 2017, so who knows? You can’t win if you don’t play.

“Is there going to be community pressure, council pressure, to take that site and see what else can be done with it? I’m sure there’s going to be some of that,” Corbett said.

But he wants to keep it available for a casino, for now.

“That would be my personal view,” Corbett said.

I’m sure there are plenty of folks who agree with Corbett. His State of the City speech audience urged him to keep up the fight.

I, personally, think it’s time to turn the page and consider other possibilities for all that city-owned land in the heart of the city. I’d like to see it transformed from an empty symbol of failure into yet another sign that Cedar Rapids is in its momentum era.

I’ve said from the start that Cedar Rapids really doesn’t need a casino. Economically, culturally, recreationally, so many things are moving fast in the right direction. The notion that downtown’s vibrancy depends on gambling always struck me as wrong.

It would have been nice. But it didn’t happen. And I’m not convinced, looking at all the immovable obstacles, that it’s still worth spending resources and energy to keep chasing it. Cedar Rapids is winning, so why are we still dwelling on losing?

Move on, I say. Cash ‘em in, fold ‘em, grab a steak. Toast the long, strange trip its been. If I can kick my addiction, so can you.

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

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