No Dice II ends in slams, flickers for Cedar Rapids casino bids

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DUBUQUE — Iowa’s Racing and Gaming Commission slammed the door on three proposed Cedar Rapids casinos Thursday. This was no surprise.

Commissioners nailed up a “Market Saturated! Keep out!” sign. And “No Cannibals Allowed.” It was a similar verdict from the same commission that voted down a Cedar Rapids casino 4-1 in 2014.

And yet, the commission’s 3-2 vote this time didn’t bolt that door. A small crack remains. A sliver of light. You can almost see the casino cartel, and its all-you-can-eat buffet.

Sure, the $165 million Cedar Crossing classic on the west side of the Cedar River downtown was turned down flat again, likely a fatal blow. Support for Wild Rose’s $40 million boxy boutique was decidedly weak.

But Cedar Crossing 2.0, a $105 million casino attached to the U.S. Cellular Center and adjacent amenities downtown, came up a single vote short of a license. Commissioner Rich Arnold of Russell, who voted no in 2014, expressed support for 2.0’s robust investment and potential to bring concerts and fill hotel beds. He was joined by Delores Mertz of Algona, who supported all three proposals.

“I really think Cedar Rapids deserves something,” Mertz said.

Commissioners Jeff Lamberti of Ankeny, Carl Heinrich of Council Bluffs and Kristine Kramer of New Hampton voted no, each insisting Iowa’s saturated casino market has changed precious little since 2014 and would be jolted by additional competition.

True, there’s no sign Iowa’s sluggish market will change much in years to come. But a close vote on their smaller, urban casino concept likely leaves a flicker of hope for Cedar Crossing backers. They’ve still got the city’s support through 2029, if local voters renew Linn County’s gambling referendum in 2021. And they can claim a small win in the fact Wild Rose was unable to swoop in an snatch the market.

A new governor? Changes on the commission? Who knows? Mertz’s and Kramer’s seats are up for appointment in 2018. Remaining commissioner terms are up in 2019 and 2020.

So if Thursday’s casino sequel was a movie, “No Dice II,” perhaps, Cedar Crossing’s 2.0’s final raspy, whispered line is “I’ll be back.”

For Wild Rose and its leader Gary Kirke, contributor of much Republican cash and lender of jets, Thursday was a washout. And Kirke’s political clout may actually have worked against his boutique bid.

Most of the commissioners took time Thursday to publicly insist they had received no political pressure or communication from Gov. Kim Reynolds, who famously borrowed Kirke’s jet back in May and has received his campaign contributions. Charges that the fix was in clearly were on commissioners’ minds.

“There’s not political pressure behind the scenes,” Lamberti said. “We make our decision on our own.”

Back in Cedar Rapids, the most immediate affect likely will be to free up city-owned riverfront land previously set aside for Cedar Crossing classic. The newly elected City Council and mayor will decide whether to ask for development proposals. City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said he expects local leaders will develop a plan for the land, with citizen input.

“It’s a great piece of property,” Pomeranz said after Thursday’s meeting. “It creates a great opportunity for the future.”

When some doors slam, others open.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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