Wild Rose Cedar Rapids has potential, but questions remain

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Just when it looked like Cedar Rapids’ casino prospects had cashed out for good, an intriguing proposal surfaced this week for a gambling facility in the heart of downtown.

Wild Rose Entertainment, which already operates casinos in Clinton, Emmetsburg and Jefferson, is proposing a $40 million “boutique” casino for a site along First Ave. SE near its intersection with Fifth Street SE. Wild Rose Cedar Rapids would be considerably smaller than the $174 million Cedar Crossing Casino plan that failed to win a state license in 2014.

Wild Rose’s facility would have fewer slot machines and table games. It would have no full-service restaurant, curtailing competition with downtown eateries. It would be connected via skywalk to the city-owned DoubleTree Hotel and Convention Complex, while using existing parking facilities.

Wild Rose Cedar Rapids would be one tenant in a multiuse building being planned by local developers Steve Emerson and Hunter Parks. It’s expected the complex also would include office space.

There’s much to like about this plan, especially its use of existing infrastructure and its potential for complimenting existing businesses and amenities. But many details still need to be worked out. Many questions still need to be answered.

Among the biggest, of course, is what will the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission do?

Wild Rose has commissioned a market study to determine what impact a smaller Cedar Rapids operation would have on existing casinos in Riverside, Waterloo and beyond. As Cedar Rapids casino backers learned all too well in 2014, any proposal that draws considerable revenue away from existing operations faces an uphill climb. In the end, it was all about protecting existing casino investments from “cannibalization.”

Wild Rose’s study should be ready in six to eight weeks. Backers contend a smaller casino with fewer amenities, proposed by an existing casino operator, will stand a better chance before regulators.

But there are no sure bets when it comes to the commission. It still is made up of the same five members who rejected Cedar Rapids’ earlier plan, although the current terms of commissioners Jeff Lamberti and Carl Heinrich end in 2017.

Wild Rose also has to convince this community it’s pitching a quality project that’s a good fit for Cedar Rapids. Although Linn County’s gambling referendum, approved with more than 60 percent of the vote in 2013, remains in effect until 2021, the new proposal must still be sold to local leaders, stakeholder groups and residents.

We suspect a community that weathered the ups and downs of the last long casino licensing slog will need to see a compelling case before trying again, and market impact numbers up front. We’re intrigued, but not yet convinced.

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