Staff Columnist

No casino, but there's still high-stakes action at First and First West

Kingston Landing, submitted by 1st & 1st, LLC., would bring a Big Grove Brewery, movie theater, Spare Time family activi
Kingston Landing, submitted by 1st & 1st, LLC., would bring a Big Grove Brewery, movie theater, Spare Time family activity center, and ice skating rink to a city-owned property long vacant and held for a casino in downtown Cedar Rapids. (Contributed by 1st & 1st, LLC)

Cedar Rapids City Council member Ann Poe remembers the long drive back from Council Bluffs in April 2014 after the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission shot down the city’s plan for a casino. No slots, no steakhouse, no dice.

“We were just heartbroken,” Poe said during Tuesday afternoon’s virtual City Council meeting, recounting how, upon returning to the city, dejected city officials drove past “the corner” of First Street and First Avenue on the west side of downtown, where Cedar Crossing Casino had been planned.

“You know, whatever goes here, it has to be great,” Poe recalled saying at the time.

Over the next six years there would be another ill-fated push for a casino and plenty of ideas on what should be built on eight acres of empty land in the center of town, adjacent to I-380. We’ve had master developers and steering committees and an open house last fall where citizens were asked for their opinions. Should we be the Milwaukee Riverwalk, or maybe Plaza del Sol in Barcelona?

On Tuesday evening, the council finally arrived at its destination development, voting to start negotiations with 1st and 1st LLC, a group of local investors including Joe Ahmann, Chad Pelley, former NFL kicker Nate Kaeding and restaurateur Matt Smith. They’re planning a $90 million to $100 million development featuring a Big Grove Brewery, a family fun center with bowling and other activities, a movie theater, mixed use space including housing and a parking complex.

Council members, appearing in the little stacked video boxes of a socially distanced Zoom meeting, put their faith in the novel notion we all will eventually leave our own pandemic boxes and have some family fun. They’re also betting that the economic downturn and uncertainty spawned by COVID-19 won’t scuttle or downsize the ambitious project.

And you thought there wasn’t any high-stakes gambling in Cedar Rapids.

“With everything going on there’s still a lot of positivity about the project…,” Ahmann told the council Tuesday, insisting all the project’s major pieces remain in place.

There were impressive renderings of a vibrant development, but many, many details are still to be worked out. For one thing, what will the city’s role be in aiding the project? Council members wondered about what sort of housing would be included, how the parking garage might look and how much bling would be visible from the interstate. A development agreement must still be negotiated.

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“It’s my belief that, by the time we finish, it will probably look different,” said Council member Dale Todd. “I look at this as a journey.”

Granted, but let’s hope it’s not too different. We’ve seen pretty renderings fade before. Westdale was going to be a greenspace-laden lifestyle center. Reality is concrete, discount clothes and storage.

But as council members pointed out repeatedly Tuesday, the 1st and 1st development group is filled with locals who have a successful track record. So members backed moving ahead 8-0, with Mayor Brad Hart recused. Hart also was nearly recused technologically when his Zoom audio connection failed during the discussion. “Can you hear me now,” Hart said, repeatedly.

The rest of the council made it loud and clear they’re willing to roll the dice. So maybe something truly great will happen at the corner. At least we don’t have to go to Council Bluffs to find out.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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