- Associated Press - Thursday, April 3, 2014

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) - Supporters of a proposed $164 million casino development in Cedar Rapids made a final push Thursday to convince regulators to approve the project, packing a public hearing to tout the economic benefits it would bring Iowa’s second largest city.

But critics also made their case against the Cedar Crossing Casino project, telling the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission it would siphon business from existing casinos throughout eastern Iowa and force them to lay off hundreds of workers.

The dueling arguments and large turnout reflected the high stakes for the future of Iowa’s $1 billion gambling industry. The commission has not approved a new casino license since 2010, when it called for a three- to five-year moratorium due to concerns about market saturation. The five-member panel is expected to decide whether to grant a license for the Cedar Rapids project at its April 17 meeting.

More than 500 people packed the commission’s hearing at the Doubletree Hotel, blocks from where the development would be built on a muddy field near Interstate 380. The majority of them were supporters of the project, holding signs urging the commission to “vote yes” and cheering when speakers made key points.

“This is our turn!” said Ray Dochterman, the president of a regional building trades union, whose workers would build the casino after being passed over for similar projects in the past.

Speaker after speaker said the casino would be a catalyst for redevelopment in a downtown neighborhood that was ravaged during a 2008 flood of the Cedar River that devastated thousands of homes and businesses. They said the casino would create hundreds of jobs, millions of dollars in new tax revenue for the state and long-overdue contributions to local nonprofit groups that receive nothing from casinos elsewhere.

The plan calls for a $138 million development that would include a casino, several restaurants and a 400-seat events center designed to attract touring entertainment acts. Most of the investors are local business leaders. The city would build a $26 million parking ramp across the street. More than 61 percent of voters in Linn County, which includes Cedar Rapids, supported the proposed casino during an election last year.

“It’s a great community. They’ll do you proud. Our people want this. They really need this, and we’ll make it happen in a great way,” said Cedar Rapids automotive dealership owner Mike McGrath, telling commissioners it would mean new entertainment options and a symbolic step forward for its rebuilding from the flood.

Critics of the project representing casinos in Riverside, Dubuque, Tama and Waterloo were also in attendance. The largest contingent represented the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort, in the small town of Riverside about 40 miles south of Cedar Rapids, who loudly clapped as critics made their points.

Riverside CEO Dan Kehl said he likely would be forced to lay off about 250 of its 750 workers if the commission approves the Cedar Rapids project, which he said would take 30 percent or more of Riverside’s business. He urged commissioners to listen to two consultants’ studies they commissioned that found Iowa’s gambling market remained saturated with 18 state-licensed and 3 tribal casinos in a state of 3.1 million people.

Kehl said he had appeared regularly in front of the commission for the last 20 years, but that Thursday was “the most important, with more at stake for more people than any other time.” He played a video for the commissioners of Riverside employees who said their families would be devastated if they lost their jobs.

Kehl said approving the project would mark a dramatic policy change for the commission, which has rejected several license applications in the last 20 years due to the impact they would have on existing casinos. He said approval would set the stage for a significant gambling expansion, with other cities rejected in the past likely to revive their plans.

Waterloo Mayor Buck Clark told the commission to protect the casinos it has already approved by rejecting new competition.

“There will only be one winner and several losers. Ladies and gentleman, enough is enough,” he said.

Through hours of testimony, commissioners listened intently without comment. In making their decision, they’re to consider factors such as the impact on jobs, economic development and tourism, as well the impact on existing casinos.

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