Corbett: Casino benefits plans for downtown

Cedar Rapids casino will help city-owned hotel, convention complex, amphitheater, he says

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett holds up a View-Master while he delivers his annual State of the City address on Wednesda
Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett holds up a View-Master while he delivers his annual State of the City address on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012, at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Mayor Ron Corbett says a casino a few blocks away from the city-owned DoubleTree by Hilton at the U.S. Cellular Center in the heart of downtown will help prove that the city taxpayers’ large investment in the hotel and center was a good bet.

A day after the local casino investor group said the best place for a casino is at one of two near-downtown sites on the west side of the Cedar River, Corbett talked about what he and the City Council would be asking of the casino group, led by Steve Gray and Drew Skogman.

Corbett noted that the proposed casino would not come with its own hotel or arena, and as a result, the casino investors will depend on the city’s existing facilities to provide that support for the casino.

“Using these existing city-owned assets versus building or duplicating them is a benefit to the taxpayers,” Corbett said.

The city and the casino group, the mayor said, will immediately get to work on a development agreement — if voters approve casino gaming in Linn County on March 5 — because much of the land on which a casino is proposed to go is now owned by the city, which obtained it in the city’s federally funded, flood-recovery buyout program.

Corbett said he envisioned the development agreement to require the casino to commit to keeping a certain number of the rooms in the 270-bed DoubleTree filled.

“And actually, I can see a scenario where the casino group purchases the hotel five years from now,” he said.

Bigger entertainment

The mayor said, too, that a city-casino agreement likely would ask the casino to underwrite a certain number of concerts a year at the U.S. Cellular Center arena or the city’s new riverfront amphitheater.

With the casino’s financial support, the city then could attract bigger acts to its entertainment venues and still be able to offer reasonably priced tickets, the mayor said.

None of these requests will come as a surprise to the 60-plus casino investors, who are doing business as Cedar Rapids Development Group LLC.

In unveiling the preferred sites for a new casino on Monday, investor Gray said he, too, is a local taxpayer and the casino would help to lessen the risk that the city has taken on at the downtown hotel and convention complex.

Corbett said funds from the repurchase of now-city-owned buyout land will return to the federal government, which provided the buyout funds in the first place. Revenue from property taxes on the new casino facility is what comes to local governments, the mayor said.

“And again, that benefits taxpayers,” he said.

Questions remain

On Tuesday, Sam Roecker, a consultant with the Just Say No Casino campaign in Linn County, said “serious questions” remain about what he suggested have been behind-the-scenes dealings between the casino investors and city and county officials.

The anti-casino campaign has been critical of the casino investors for not agreeing to contribute more in casino profits to the local non-profit that will hold any Linn County gaming license.

Roecker also asked, “Was this deal for the casino to fill beds in the city-owned hotel, or even buy the hotel, part of the negotiations with the non-profit?”

Corbett on Tuesday said that, in the past, no one in Cedar Rapids or Linn County had voted against casino gaming more than him.

In his 13-year stint in the Iowa Legislature, five years of which he served as speaker of the Iowa House, the state of Iowa created the law to allow an Iowa riverboat casino industry — no thanks to what Corbett says were his unflinchingly constant “no” votes against the casino issue every step of the way.

In 2003, he voted against bringing casino gaming to Linn County.

But this time is different: He’s already voted “yes” in early voting in the March 5 referendum to allow casino gaming in Linn County.

Corbett support

On a personal level, he said a casino will keep Linn County gambling dollars in Linn County, it will create jobs and it will provide another form of entertainment in the community.

“The gambling genie was let out of the bottle in Iowa 20 years ago,” Corbett said, elaborating on why he said it’s important to try to keep Linn County gambling dollars in Linn County. “So people are gambling, and they will continue to gamble. I believe, when you look at the question, is it important to keep some of the money local, the answer is ‘Yes.’”

As for jobs, Corbett said creating jobs in a community these days is not easy, and as some are added, some can be lost. He pointed to layoffs at Rockwell Collins and Clipper Windpower in 2012, as two examples.“So whenever you have the opportunity to create some jobs, it’s a good thing,” he said of the casino.

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