In this 2021 photograph, balloons float above a table at a Linn Wins watch party at the Double Z Bar and Grill in Cedar Rapids where voters weighed in on two public measures. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
OSCEOLA — The panel that regulates Iowa’s gambling facilities will receive applications from those seeking a license to operate a facility in Linn County, potentially opening the door for casino development in the second-largest city in Iowa.
But Cedar Rapids will only get clearance from the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission if city officials and developers can make their case, overcome opposition and allay fears that a casino in Cedar Rapids “cannibalizes” the market.
This market also includes Waterloo and Riverside, towns within an hour’s 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 felt the market was sufficiently served.
But Cedar Rapids thinks “the time is right” for a casino. Officials say the casino could be part of Iowa’s solution to avoiding competition from recently approved games at Nebraska’s six racetracks. Recent socio-economic studies commissioned by the panel show that these plans – and the expansion of gambling in Illinois as well as a new casino in Beloit, Wisconsin – will eat away at income from the Iowa gambling industry. .
“We checked a big box today, and the next step is to get the schedule,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell said Thursday. “I’m very excited about this because the sooner we have this, the sooner the community can see the plans. And they are spectacular.
As November voters once again passed the Linn County gaming referendum, Cedar Rapids now has the option to seek a license in perpetuity from the state commission.
During the panel’s meeting Thursday at the Lakeside Hotel and Casino, commission chairwoman Julie Andres said the panel will release a schedule for anyone who is eligible to submit nominations. She said the impetus for starting this process is the passage of the County Gaming Referendum.
“We think it’s our responsibility as a commission, Cedar Rapids has passed a referendum, I think it would be the right thing for us to look at the timeline in which we can look at these nominations and then look at them” , said the commissioner. Daryl Olsen.
The commissioners did not comment on the studies presented at the January meeting or discuss anything other than to point out that they were launching the candidacy process in accordance with the adoption of the referendum.
All of the commissioners who denied Cedar Rapids a license left the panel in the years since, so Thursday marked the start of the process under a new commission.
The panel will then meet in Council Bluffs on April 14. The commissioners could then set the details of the request and a timetable.
One step forward
Cedar Rapids has entered into an agreement with the Cedar Rapids Development Group, a group of primarily local investors, guaranteeing the city’s exclusive support throughout the bid process. This agreement does not prevent other entities from applying.
Developer Jonathan Swain, president of Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, the would-be operator of the Cedar Rapids casino, said it appears the commission recognizes citizens have twice said they want a casino.
“I think they feel that responsibility as a commission to respect the vote of the citizens and the will of the Cedar Rapidians who voted for it,” Swain said. “…This is one of the best days of my year so far.”
Jonathan Swain speaks to the media about plans for a casino in Cedar Rapids in 2017. (The Gazette)
O’Donnell and City Manager Jeff Pomeranz agreed it was credit to the commission for acknowledging voter support for the gambling referendum. They considered Thursday a success and an important step in the process.
“We feel really good where we are,” Pomeranz said. “We came here to have them move the process forward for Cedar Rapids in Linn County, and that’s exactly what happened. Now, these are just additional steps in the future.
“The goal is to be the best”
Swain declined to share new details about the city’s casino proposal, including potential locations, to respect the commission’s process and avoid providing information to other potential applicants. Officials said the now-demolished Cooper’s Mill site on F Avenue NW is among the candidates because it would meet city leaders’ wishes to build the casino near downtown, but that’s not is not the only possibility.
He said the plans were “90 per cent done” and he hopes to share more details this summer, but mentioned that O’Donnell is “pushing me to get big or go home”. With a 10-year lead on crafting a vision for a Cedar Rapids casino, Swain hoped his development group would get a leg up on the competition.
“This project will be significantly bigger, significantly better” than previous proposals, Swain said. “Our whole motto during this process is to 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% share of the facility’s revenue would also support local nonprofits through an agreement between Peninsula Pacific Entertainment and the Linn County Gaming Association, the nonprofit board that would distribute those 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 triggers progress. I am a firm believer that development promotes more development. A casino of the size and scope of this project would invite others to develop around it.
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