Business

Cedar Rapids business to buy Hawkeye Downs, pledges funds for improvements

Carter Kramer, president and CEO of CellSite Solutions, speaks during a news conference Sunday at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids. The pending sale of Hawkeye Downs to CellSite Solutions means it will be business as usual at the venue, officials say. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
Carter Kramer, president and CEO of CellSite Solutions, speaks during a news conference Sunday at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids. The pending sale of Hawkeye Downs to CellSite Solutions means it will be business as usual at the venue, officials say. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — A pending sale of Hawkeye Downs will mean business as usual at the racetrack and exhibition hall — but without the debt, facility officials promised at a Sunday morning news conference.

It was no secret that Hawkeye Downs, which sits on 93 acres in southwest Cedar Rapids, was facing financial troubles, said Julie Kraft, president of the All Iowa Agricultural Association, a private nonprofit that oversees the operation.

“We want it to be better, but finding the money to do that has been an ongoing challenge,” she told about 75 racers, employees and community members.

That changed Friday when its 12-member board of directors unanimously approved a letter of intent to sell Hawkeye Downs for $2.6 million to Carter Kramer of CellSite Solutions, which describes itself as an industry leader in used, refurbished and surplus telecom equipment. In addition, CellSite will make $200,000 in improvements to the facilities, Kraft said.

The sale, yet to be finalized, will allow CellSite to expand and remain in Cedar Rapids.

“It also will allow Hawkeye Downs to continue to operate here as before” with racing, trade shows, events “and all the gatherings that routinely take place here,” Kraft said.

Opened more than eight decades ago, the facility offers bingo, trade shows, concerts, auctions and other events. It features paved half-mile and quarter mile racing.

The All Iowa Agricultural Association will lease back the expo halls and racetrack from CellSite Solutions. That will allow the association to retire mortgages and liens, and create an endowment for future improvements, Kraft said.

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Kramer had looked at buying just 30 acres at Hawkeye Downs to expand CellSite Solutions. But after meeting with the board, Kraft said he proposed buying the entire facility and leasing back the racetrack and exposition halls as a way to mutually benefit his business and the community attraction.

Kramer plans to redevelop his business at 1720 I Ave. NE and move his headquarters to the southwest corner of the Hawkeye Downs property. CellSite, which has operated in Cedar Rapids for about 10 years, has 55 employees with plans to expand to more than 70 in the next two years.

The purchase also will have a personal benefit, Kramer joked.

“You guys can probably see that I have a passion for racing, for driving fast,” he said, pointing to his Audi RS7 that he had driven into the exposition hall. “It will be a little bit easier — more legal — out back here.”

The announcement was met with optimism from many in attendance.

“All the hype had been that it was closing,” said Dan Tiegen of Cedar Rapids, who has raced at Hawkeye Downs for two years. “It sounds like it will be business as usual, but with money to make improvements. So that’s a win.”

“It won’t be bulldozed,” added Dallas Chandler. “It’s a prime location, so we were afraid it would be developed.”

There are many questions yet to be answered Kraft and board members said, but they repeatedly emphasized they intend to conduct “business as usual” and begin improvements as soon as possible. Repairing a leaky roof on the North Exposition Hall likely will be one of the first projects, Kraft said.

Kramer asked for patience as he and the board determine what should happen.

“We want to be intelligent how we spend,” he said.

Lisa Nelson of Cedar Rapids also heard the announcement as good news. Nelson, who volunteers at Hawkeye Downs and is married to a racecar driver, called it “great news to have someone who sounds passionate.”

Like others who asked questions, she’ll have to wait for answers.

Nelson, who has questioned past decisions about the operation of Hawkeye Downs, is not confident the current board will make the changes needed to ensure its long-term future.

“I’m looking forward to the changes,” she said.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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