Bruce Nesmith is a Strong Towns member, resident of Cedar Rapids, IA and frequent guest writer for the site. The following essay about a local casino project is republished from his blog, Holy Mountain, with permission.
The required cooling-off period has passed since Cedar Rapids' casino proposal was denied by the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission in April 2014, and three proposals have emerged to try it again. The Cedar Crossing group led by Steve Gray, who created the 2013-14 proposal for a casino that would have straddled 1st Avenue West near the Cedar River, has resubmitted that version along with a smaller casino concept on 1st Avenue where it currently intersects with 4th Street NE, the railroad tracks and the Cedar River Trail. Wild Rose, which operates large-scale casinos in Clinton and Dubuque, has proposed a small casino on the second floor of a four-story building proposed in the 400 block of 1st Avenue SE. (Take a virtual walk around this neighborhood in Google Streetview to the right.)
Of the three I prefer the look of Wild Rose's proposal. It's an unpretentious building that works well with the rest of the block and doesn't impede walkability. My main beefs against the original Cedar Crossing proposal were that it was a gaudy building that wouldn't work with the street; that it was a self-contained pod of attractions that not only would provide no spillover benefits to nearby businesses but would actively compete against them; and that, compared to a contemporaneous proposal by MGM to Springfield, Massachusetts, the City of Cedar Rapids seemed to be getting very little out of the deal. I haven't seen the financial details of the current proposals, so can't compare them or assess their sufficiency.
I remain curious as to why a casino plays such a central role in our city's discussions of economic development. Some people enjoy them, some don't; I get that. And whether big- or modestly-sized, a new casino will make a noticeable splash when it opens. But as economic drivers casinos seem less effective than incremental urbanism. This admittedly is a pretty slap-dash way of demonstrating this, but let's look at the 400 block of 1st Avenue SE, where the Wild Rose hopes to build. The venerable Bever building, built in 1923, is pretty, but this is far from the hoppin'-est block in town. Using the Strong Towns model of property tax comparison...
...we find that the taxable value per acre on this block vastly exceeds either of the region's most successful casinos. The taxable value per acre of the vacant lot where Wild Rose hopes to build is more than three times that of the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort!
However, as dubious a use of valuable real estate as I believe a downtown casino to be, I am done with the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission. I would rather have the city make its own decisions, even if I disagree with them, about its future. The State of Iowa has shown an unbridled willingness to intervene in and overrule local decisions--from casino location to minimum wage to labor agreements to plastic bags to rental regulations, and now taking down the Des Moines Water Works--without any notable talent for doing it. Unless someone's rights are being violated, the governor and legislature should butt out. We can handle this. Do something you're good at, like ensuring gun rights for robots.
(Top image by justefrain)