Ongoing casino fallout targets battleship while Hatch opens up

The USS Iowa at Berth 87 at the Port of Los Angeles on Tuesday, July 3, 2011, in San Pedro, Calif. (SourceMedia Group News/Jim Slosiarek)
The USS Iowa at Berth 87 at the Port of Los Angeles on Tuesday, July 3, 2011, in San Pedro, Calif. (SourceMedia Group News/Jim Slosiarek)

For backers of Cedar Rapids’ ill-fated casino bid, hard feelings are dying hard.

Over the weekend, a few suggested that it might have been the USS Iowa that sank Cedar Crossing Casino, training its big guns on the project. From behind a grassy knoll, maybe.

Racing and Gaming Commission Chairman Jeff Lamberti also chairs the board of directors for Battleship Iowa, a charity raising bucks to preserve the floating museum. Riverside Casino & Golf Resort owner Dan Kehl, who worked against a Cedar Rapids casino, gave money to the battleship. Both men attended a USS Iowa reception at Terrace Hill 10 days before the gaming commission turned down Cedar Rapids’ license request 4-1. Lamberti voted no.

There are rumors that the USS Iowa may be getting a water park. Can’t confirm.

I’m feeling a little whiplash. Not long ago, it was backers’ close connections to Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration, and former lawmakers-turned-commissioners, including Lamberti, that put this thing in the bag for Cedar Rapids. Now, we’re hearing it was influence on the other side that did it in, at Branstad’s house, no less.

Branstad has remained largely silent about this casino saga, insisting it’s the commission’s call. But his likely Democratic opponent had a lot to say during an editorial board stop on Friday.

“I think they prevented competition,’ said state Sen. Jack Hatch of Des Moines. “I think the gaming and racing commission is protecting existing casinos. That’s not the market competitive-driven system that I was expecting it to embrace. I think they are making decisions about the market that were unreasonable.”

Hatch praised Cedar Rapids flood recovery and the careful planning behind it. “To have a casino downtown was part of that plan,” Hatch said. “And for them to decide that they’re not going to give you that opportunity is phenomenal, it’s narrow-minded. And I don’t understand it. I was shocked by the decision.”

Maybe Hatch is pandering. Politicians do that. And although governors appoint commissioners, their ability to affect licensing decisions is limited. Hatch’s likelihood of becoming governor also is limited.

But Hatch said governors can make their vision clear. “When a governor says we should have a different attitude about gaming, you can still have the same people on the gaming commission, at least they know what the governor is thinking,” Hatch said.

What I’m thinking is that none of this naval gazing or politics changes the fact that it was a pair of state-financed market studies that torpedoed Cedar Crossing way back in late February. Those studies strongly insisted that a casino in Cedar Rapids would pull much of its revenue from existing casinos. Cannibalization, as they say. And saturation.

Had those studies showed the sort of modest revenue nibble predicted by local investors’ own study, Kehl could have promised to swab the USS Iowa’s decks every morning, and he couldn’t have stopped Cedar Crossing from coming. Any governor could have cut the ribbon.

But that, unfortunately, is not what happened. So, again, the only influence that really matters is the casino cartel’s constant clout, backed by the pile of tax money it pays to the state. A regulatory structure designed to protect and sustain it will die hardest of all.

l Comments: todd.dorman@sourcemedia.net or (319) 398-8452

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