Members of the Black Hawk County Gaming Association were obviously pleased with the vote Nov. 16 that denied a casino license to all three proposals for a new casino in Cedar Rapids.
So are we, since the conditions under which the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission denied a single license in Cedar Rapids three years ago have not changed. The casino market in Iowa has been, and still is, saturated.
The vote by the IRGC was 3-2. The vote reflected long-standing concerns granting a new license would hurt profits at existing Iowa casinos, especially in Waterloo, Tama and Riverside.
“It has a huge impact on Waterloo, because if that got approved we would lose a substantial amount of money — the gaming association and the community,” BHCGA member Geoff Grimes said. “It’s a good day.”
The gaming association, as the nonprofit holder of the Isle Casino’s Hotel gaming license, distributes 5.75 percent of the casino’s adjusted gross revenues for community projects in Black Hawk and several surrounding counties. Since that revenue stream was initiated, the BHCGA has been able to invest nearly $40 million into the many communities that make up the Cedar Valley.
Black Hawk Gaming officials estimated the granting of a new license in Cedar Rapids would have cost them about $1 million a year in potential grant revenues, about a 17 to 20 percent drop annually.
“The right decision was made,” said Tim Hurley, a former Waterloo mayor and BHCGA president.
The IRGC previously had denied a license for a Cedar Rapids casino in April 2014 by a 4-1 vote, citing market saturation. The commission determined a new license in Linn County would harm nearby casinos.
Prior to that decision, four studies all concluded significant “cannibalization” of casino profits would occur if a Cedar Rapids casino license were approved. Two of those studies were commissioned by the IRGC itself.
Nothing has changed since that time — except that the proposals for a Cedar Rapids license gained another commission vote.
We fully agree the commission made the correct decision. The fact it came down to such a close vote is a little disconcerting, considering the main issue in denying the license hasn’t changed.
Prior to this month’s vote, Eric Johnson, a BHCGA board member, said he saw the commission decision as a choice between policy or politics. He said if the commission chose policy, it would note its own criteria for granting new licenses and find the market is saturated. If it chose politics, it could opt to support the state’s second-biggest city in its efforts to get a gaming license.
“Hopefully, they’re following policy, because this shouldn’t be approved if that’s what they’re following,” Johnson said.
Statewide information for fiscal year 2017 showed 12 of the 19 state-controlled casinos were bringing in less revenue this year than the prior fiscal year, indicating a lagging market.
Let’s not forget that in 2003 the commission encouraged the authorization of gaming in Linn County because there was a void along the corridor in eastern Iowa. Linn County voters, however, tuned down the opportunity.
Linn County voters reversed course in 2013, but the void already had been filled by Riverside Casino, south of Iowa City, and the Isle, both of which are within an hour’s drive of Cedar Rapids.
The casino in Waterloo, and casinos in other Iowa communities, have provided an economic development anchor, entertainment and a lure for visitors. We certainly understand the persistence of those working to get a casino in Cedar Rapids, even as we argue against granting a license there.
Back in 2014, the commission used solid reasoning. Members put in a lot of time and research. Thorough and costly studies were commissioned. The same conclusion kept coming back: The casino market is saturated in Iowa.
Considering all the data that has been collected on the issue, we don’t believe the vote should have been close this time. But at least the majority of the commission heeded its own criteria and came down on the right side — again.