Staff Columnist

A vision for the C.R. casino site, and some airborne gubernatorial influence

The site of the proposed Cedar Crossing Casino in Cedar Rapids has been prepared ahead of  the Racing and Gaming Commiss
The site of the proposed Cedar Crossing Casino in Cedar Rapids has been prepared ahead of the Racing and Gaming Commission visit on Thursday. Shot on Monday, March 31, 2014. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

Cannibalization was so 2017. This year, it’s imagination.

Well, at least on the west side of the Cedar River downtown, where a big chunk of land sits empty at this hour. It was once to be the site of the glitzy Cedar Crossing Casino. We’d all be sitting there right now, eating thick steaks and losing our shirts, if it wasn’t for that meddling Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.

Commissioners rejected Cedar Crossing’s bid for a state license in 2014, fearing a new casino would cannibalize revenue from existing joints in Riverside, Waterloo, etc. And just last November, the commission rejected a casino plan for the same site a second time.

What little gambling juice remains in this town has relocated to a site adjacent to the city-owned hotel, arena and convention complex. That’s where Cedar Crossing 2.0 was planned, and fell one vote short of a license in November. Watch this space for later developments. Much later. Years.

Meanwhile, there’s empty west side land along First Street SW, more than three whole city bocks, straddling First Avenue and a poker chip’s throw from I-380. Prime Real estate in the heart of the city.

City Manager Jeff Pomeranz and Mayor Brad Hart stopped by our shop for an editorial meeting earlier this month, where they were asked about the site’s future.

Pomeranz said the City Council has to decide whether to release the land for development. Given its potential as a casino site is now less than zero, that’s a no-brainer.

Beyond that, Pomeranz is recommending the city search for a planning firm to help create a “vision” for the site.


“I see this as a tremendous opportunity,” Pomeranz said. “Personally, as city manager, I want to make sure that we take every opportunity to develop this land the right way, so we don’t end up just piecemealing that particular development.”

Instead of “piecemealing,” Pomeranz said we need to “broadscale” this thing. Already, this is building our vocabulary. That process would include community input from folks who have ideas about what they’d like to see happen on the site.

The city manager wants “to create something that’s really unique and special for downtown and for Cedar Rapids.” Ditto with citizens, I suspect.

“What I think is some kind of mixed use, where you’re going to have some housing, retail and office, and maybe entertainment, which would create an exciting amenity for downtown,” Pomeranz said. “That’s my thought. But we’re going to go through the process. What’s going to be best on that property? What’s going to fit on that property? How do we maximize that for the best interest of the community?”

“Mixed use” doesn’t exactly give you goose bumps, but I guess it all depends on what the uses are. And having watched city government here for a while, I know how excited the citizenry will be to see a consultant come in to facilitate this broadscaling. Expert help is swell, don’t get me wrong, but the local experience too often has been outsiders coming in to ratify what insiders wanted all along.

This, of course, can be different, if the city and its helpful planner truly pursue an inclusive community input process that invites ideas from beyond the usual suspects. You’re never going to please everyone in this town, but you can provide opportunities to hear from everyone.

I know you have ideas, because each time I write about this, I receive a bunch of them. Most involve creating some sort of family-friendly entertainment venue. Bottom line, people want something big and different, now that gambling has crapped out.

“It’s a great piece of land. It’s an exciting opportunity. When you think of a city of our size, to have that land available in our downtown, completely undeveloped and ready, is a real opportunity for our city,” Pomeranz said.


The good news is there’s no Iowa Mixed Use and Entertainment Commission to step in to stop a development from cannibalizing Coralville.

Come fly with me

Speaking of wrapping up loose gambling ends, perhaps you recall back in June when Gov. Kim Reynolds caught flak for flying around the state in Gary Kirke’s private jet. Kirke, head honcho of Wild Rose Entertainment, was applying for a state license to build a Wild Rose Casino in Cedar Rapids.

Providing air transport to the same governor who appoints the Racing and Gaming Commission, in the middle of a licensing process, looked shady. On top of that, consultants hired to help Kirke with his bid hosted a fundraiser for Reynolds. More shade. Reynolds shrugged off the criticism, even saying she might just fly Air Kirke again in the future.

But, of course, in the end, Kirke’s Cedar Rapids casino bid was grounded. Commissioners were not swayed by some aerial display of political influence.

For the record, according to the latest campaign finance filings, that statewide fly-around amounted to an $11,435 in-kind contribution to the Reynolds campaign from Kirke.

And it’s true, Reynolds did take to the skies again, but not in Kirke’s jet.

In July, she flew courtesy of an in-kind contribution from Iowa City apartment company owner and businessman David Barker, to the tune of $5,815.30. Barker also donated $10,000 in cash to her campaign in 2017.

In October and December, Reynolds flew on the dime of David North of Bellevue, president and CEO of Sedgwick, a Memphis-based company that handles business benefits and claims. North’s in-kind contribution for two flights totaled $5,520.

Reynolds also traveled to Washington, D.C. in September courtesy of a $6,000 in-kind contribution from the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.


In the interest of laying all cards on the table, Reynolds’ Republican primary rival, former Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, received two donations totaling $50,000 from Steve Gray, who led the investor group seeking a license for Cedar Crossing. But no dice, twice.

So the casino issue is settled. But nagging questions about a political system awash in cash and special favors remain up in the air.

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