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Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission will take applications for Linn County casino license
Commission says gaming referendum passage driving start of application process
OSCEOLA — The panel that regulates Iowa gaming facilities will take applications from those seeking a license to operate a facility in Linn County, potentially opening the door to the development of a casino in Iowa’s second-largest city.
But Cedar Rapids will only secure permission from the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission if city officials and developers successfully make their case, overcome opposition and assuage concerns that a casino in Cedar Rapids will “cannibalize” the market.
That market also includes Waterloo and Riverside, cities within an hour drive that already have casinos. The five-member panel has denied Cedar Rapids a license to operate a casino twice before, in 2014 and 2017, because it considered the market sufficiently served.
But Cedar Rapids believes “the time is now” for a casino. Officials say the casino could be part of Iowa’s solution to stave off competition from recently approved gaming at Nebraska’s six horse tracks. Recent socioeconomic studies commissioned by the panel show these plans — and expansions of gaming in Illinois plus a new casino in Beloit, Wis. — will eat into Iowa’s gaming industry revenues.
“We checked a big box today, and the next step is to get the timeline,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell said Thursday. “I’m most excited about that because the sooner we have that, the sooner the community can see the plans. And they are spectacular.”
As voters in November again passed the gaming referendum in Linn County, Cedar Rapids now has the ability to seek a license in perpetuity from the state commission.
At the panel’s Thursday meeting at the Lakeside hotel and casino, commission chair Julie Andres said the panel will release a timeline for anyone eligible who wants to submit applications. She said the impetus for beginning this process is the passage of the county gaming referendum.
“We feel like it’s our responsibility as a commission, Cedar Rapids passed a referendum, I think it would be the right thing for us to do to look at the timeline that we can look at those applications and then review those applications,” said commissioner Daryl Olsen.
The commissioners didn’t comment on the studies presented at the January meeting or discuss much else beyond emphasizing they were launching the application process pursuant to the referendum’s passage.
All commissioners who denied Cedar Rapids a license have cycled off the panel in the years since, so Thursday marked the beginning of the process under a new commission.
The panel meets next in Council Bluffs on April 14. Commissioners could set application details and a timeline then.
A step forward
Cedar Rapids has an agreement with the Cedar Rapids Development Group, a group of mostly local investors, guaranteeing the city’s exclusive support through the application process. That deal does not preclude other entities from applying.
Developer Jonathan Swain, president of Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, the potential Cedar Rapids casino operator, said it seems the commission recognizes that the citizens have said twice now they want a casino.
“I think they feel this responsibility as a commission to respect the vote of the citizens and the will of the Cedar Rapidians that voted for this,” Swain said. “… This is one of the best days of my year so far.”
O’Donnell and City Manager Jeff Pomeranz agreed it was a credit to the commission for acknowledging the voters' support for the gaming referendum. They considered Thursday a success and an important step in the process.
“We feel really good about where we are,” Pomeranz said. “We came here wanting them to move the process forward for Cedar Rapids, Linn County, and that's exactly what happened. Now it's just further steps in the future.”
‘Goal is to be the best’
Swain declined to share new details on the city’s casino proposal, including potential locations, to respect the commission’s process and avoid providing insight to other potential applicants. Officials have said the site of the now-demolished Cooper’s Mill on F Avenue NW is among the contenders, as it would fulfill city leaders’ wishes to build the casino in proximity to downtown, but it’s not the only possibility.
He said the plans are “90 percent done” and he hopes to share more details in the summer, but mentioned O’Donnell is “pushing me to go big or go home.” With a 10-year head start on crafting a vision for a Cedar Rapids casino, Swain was hopeful his development group will have a leg up on the competition.
“This project will be significantly larger, significantly better” compared with previous proposals, Swain said. “Our whole motto during this process is set a new benchmark for gaming in Iowa. Our goal is to be the best casino in the state.”
Investors and city officials see the potential for a casino to boost infrastructure and entertainment options, and ultimately spur economic development. An 8 percent share of facility revenue also would support local nonprofits through an agreement between Peninsula Pacific Entertainment and the Linn County Gaming Association, the nonprofit board that would dole out these funds.
“A casino downtown or near downtown would allow us to accelerate our growth,” O’Donnell said. “It’s not the only solution but it definitely ignites progress. I’m a firm believer that development promotes more development. A casino the size and scale of this project would invite others to develop around it.”
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