Linn County voters approve gambling referendum

22-point approval margin pleases casino supporters

The Riverfront Site option in downtown Cedar Rapids. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)
The Riverfront Site option in downtown Cedar Rapids. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The climb continues now — on to the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission — for a local group of 60-plus investors and the elected officials and community leaders who support them in their effort to secure a state gaming license to build an $85 million casino across the Cedar River from downtown Cedar Rapids.

Linn County voters on Tuesday — including an unprecedented number for a local election here who voted in recent weeks by absentee ballot — overwhelmingly approved casino gaming by a 22-percentage-point margin, 61-to-39 percent.

Just four of 86 precincts in Linn County voted against the casino — two in Mount Vernon, a rural precinct north of Mount Vernon and one that votes at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in North Cedar Rapids. The precinct totals, though, don’t include absentee ballots, which accounted for a third of the 60,279 votes cast.

“Not only is this a vote for, it’s a vote forward,” said Steve Gray, who watched the election results along with a gleeful Vote Yes Linn County campaign crowd at the IBEW Hall, 1211 Wiley Blvd. SW, “It’s a victory for the county, the city and the region, and I hope it’s a turning point and shows that Cedar Rapids and Linn County are back, that when we put our minds to it, we can accomplish anything.”

Cedar Rapids City Council member Justin Shields, a local labor leader who single-handedly kept the casino idea alive at City Hall after Linn County voters turned it down a decade ago, said last night that the victory was proof of what labor and business can do when the join forces.

“We’re all on one side,” added Dave Hogan, president of the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Building Trades Council, whose members helped get petitions signed to prompt Tuesday’s vote and then helped get the vote out.

Gray, the public face of the casino investor group, was quick to add: “Now, we’ve still got a couple pretty big steps ahead of us.”

One is building the casino, but the even bigger step will be to convince the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission — which three years ago said it didn’t want to look to approve any additional gaming licenses in the state for three to five years — to grant the state’s 19th gaming license to Linn County.

The fight in front of the commission is expected to be as vitriolic as the $2.2-million campaign just completed that pitted the casino investors and supporters against a Just Say No Casino campaign funded in large measure by Dan Kehl, the CEO of the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort south of Iowa City.

Kehl, who said a Cedar Rapids casino will steal more than 30 percent of his business, appeared in Cedar Rapids last Friday promising to build a $30 million water park if Linn voters said “no” to a casino.

Scott Stines, who was one of the faces of the Just Say No Casino effort and who opposed the casino idea in 2003, said last night’s huge margin for the casino meant one simple thing: “The citizens of Linn County want a casino.”

With the continued growth of casinos in Iowa, Stines said the “stigma” against gambling has decreased over time. “Everybody wants a casino. Everybody wants the tax revenue,” he said.

Even so, he said he will be at the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission when the time comes. “This is the end of the beginning, not the end,” Stines said.

Tuesday’s 22-point margin of victory represents a monumental turnaround from 2003 when Linn County voters turned down casino gaming by a margin of nearly 6-percentage points. As significant, Tuesday’s victory also comes on the heels of two hard-fought and unsuccessful battles in 2011 and 2012 as the city of Cedar Rapids and the metro area tried and failed to extend the local-option sales tax to help fund local infrastructure projects, which for Cedar Rapids would have been money used for a flood protection system.

Shields said he fully expected that Kehl will fight on to the commission. “They’re not going to give up, but we’ll be more determined than ever,” Shields said.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s vote, Greg Seyfer, a Cedar Rapids attorney and a member of the five-member Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission, said that the size of a referendum victory matters a great deal to the commission.

Gray said Tuesday’s margin of victory would be a nice margin to take to the commission, and he said it might have been larger but for Tuesday’s morning snow, distortions from the other side and Kehl’s last-minute water-park distraction.

In terms of victory margins, voters in Washington County, Iowa, approved casino gaming in 2004 for the Riverside Casino by just a 4-point margin.

The margins of victory for four other of the state’s newer casinos was much larger: 33 percentage points in Black Hawk County in 2003 for the Waterloo casino; 42 percentage points in Palo Alto County in 2003 for the Emmetsburg casino; 50 percentage points in 2003 for the Worth County casino; and 24 percentage points in 2008 for the Lyon County casino at Larchwood.

Last night at the IBEW Hall alongside the Vote Yes Linn County campaign, Mayor Ron Corbett said the Vote Yes group’s victory — fueled by its own $1.5 million in contributions from the local casino investor group — was a lesson in how election victories are made.“They worked across traditional political boundaries,” Corbett said of the campaign coalition that included business and labor. “They worked across political boundaries that everybody’s afraid to cross.”

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