Thorny county vote pans Wild Rose casino

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Last time Cedar Rapids investors sought a casino license, conventional wisdom predicted a done deal. Several top investors had strong ties to then-Gov. Terry Branstad, who surely would pull some strings on behalf of Cedar Crossing Casino, riverfront version.

Conventional wisdom was wrong, and the Racing and Gaming Commission voted 4-1 in April 2014 to deny the investor group led by Steve Gray.

Now, as the commission considers new Cedar Rapids casino plans, conventional wisdom again detects a fix that’s in. But instead of Gray’s group, now it’s Gary Kirke’s proposed Wild Rose “boutique” casino plan with clout in high places.

This has been the subject of mainly behind-the-scenes local grumbling, until Wednesday. That’s when Linn County Board of Supervisors Chairman Brent Oleson laid those cards on the table in public, arguing Wild Rose has an “ace up its sleeve.”

Oleson floated a board resolution panning “casino magnate” Kirke’s “slots-in-a-box” boutique, which would offer fewer amenities than Gray’s Cedar Crossing 2.0 proposal. Both would be built downtown near the U.S. Cellular Center, DoubleTree Hotel and convention complex. Oleson argues Linn County voters who backed gambling wanted a destination venue.

Oleson points to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ use of Kirke’s jet to travel the state, creating “troubling optics” of influence, along with consultants working for Kirke who held a June fundraiser for Reynolds.

Pick Cedar Crossing, or grant no license, Oleson’s resolution insists. Anything but a Wild Rose. It was approved 3-1, with Oleson, Jim Houser and Stacey Walker, all Democrats, voting yes. John Harris, the lone Republican, voted no, questioning its content and arguing board resolutions should deal with county business. Ben Rogers was absent.

The county, and the city of Cedar Rapids, have forged memorandums of understanding with Gray’s group pledging to back no other casino project. So the county’s support wasn’t an issue. Still, Oleson’s public offensive is sure to raise some eyebrows.

Call it partisanship or showmanship, but the appearance of coziness does loom over this licensing process. It’s tough to ignore Kirke’s connections and his casino cartel membership, three Wild Roses open, and counting. The big money question is how much will it matter? That’s a good question for the commission when it comes to town on Sept. 26 for a public hearing. Oleson insists his resolution is intended to spark those public queries.

I still say two independent market studies due in October, detailing the extent new casinos would cannibalize bucks from existing venues, will have the largest effect on the commission’s decision. Both Wild Rose and Cedar Crossing are floating smallish venues with hopes of gobbling less revenue. But it’s still possible, if not probable, both plans will take too big a bite from a saturated market, pushing the commission to take a pass.

But let’s say, for fun, Kirke’s boutique falls somewhere on the cannibalization scale between nibbling and bingeing. In a close commission call, Kirke’s standing and clout could make a difference.

That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. For what it’s worth.

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

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