Cedar Rapids Casino Story Is Years In The Making

Written By Cole Rush on July 19, 2023 - Last Updated on July 31, 2023
Cedar Rapids has failed to get a casino for nearly a decade.

The former site of Cooper’s Mill restaurant has transformed into more of a rumor mill. The Cedar Rapids Development Group is eyeing the location for a potential casino, and plans are creeping forward, albeit slowly.

Cedar Rapids is Iowa’s second most populated city, following the capital, Des Moines. As such, attempts to bring a casino to Cedar Rapids have surfaced many times in the past. This latest attempt seems promising. But could past woes come back to haunt Cedar Rapids?

Moratorium on new casinos will keep Cedar Rapids’ proposal at bay for 2 years

Iowa boasts 19 state-regulated casinos. That will remain the same for the next year and a half after a moratorium on new casinos was enacted in 2022.

Right now, there’s a metaphorical tug-of-war raging in The Hawkeye State. The city of Cedar Rapids has set the plot of land aside for an eventual casino. And Peninsula Pacific Entertainment has been tapped to develop the property.

The approved site was formerly host to Cooper’s Mill and a Best Western motel. Peninsula plans for the Cedar Rapids casino to include various dining and entertainment venues in addition to a gambling floor.

However, it’s all a twinkle in the eye of Cedar Rapids officials at the moment. With the two-year hold on new casinos signed into law in June 2022, the earliest a Cedar Rapids casino could feasibly move forward is June 2024.

Even the expiration of the casino moratorium isn’t a guarantee of approval. State legislators would still need to approve the project, and previous attempts have met with more than their fair share of difficulty.

Looking back at Cedar Rapids casino efforts

Talks of a Cedar Rapids casino have long bubbled in the state. It seems that every few years, the idea comes back into the limelight. The past few attempts have met with significant obstacles, ultimately dying before so much as a shovel could touch the proposed ground on any of the purported casino sites.

2014: Looking out for the neighbors

The year 2014 brought one of the most high-profile attempts to bring a casino to Cedar Rapids. The proposal involved a $164 million development, but the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission (IRGC) quashed any hopes. According to news station KCRG, local officials and investors were completely bought into the concept. The referendum one year prior garnered 61% of the votes in favor, and all appeared staged for success in Cedar Rapids.

The commission, however, abolished the proposal in a 4-1 vote. The reason? Worries of financial cannibalism from nearby casinos. The closest casino to Cedar Rapids is Riverside Casino and Golf Resort, roughly 40 miles away. The IRGC worried a Cedar Rapids casino would reduce revenue at Riverside to the tune of 30 to 40%. The proposed casino – Cedar Crossing – never made it past this vote.

Local attorney Gene Kopecky brought a case challenging the decision to District Court, which sided with the commission. An appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the District Court’s decision.

2016: A new angle

Two years following the 2014 debacle, a new, smaller plan formed.

A $40 million proposal for a downtown Cedar Rapids casino surfaced, this time from Wild Rose Casinos and Resorts. Wild Rose runs various properties in Iowa. The closest to Cedar Rapids is its Clinton Casino, approximately 75 miles away.

The project was dubbed a “boutique” casino thanks to its much smaller price tag and footprint. The project, like its predecessor, never came to fruition.

2017: Let’s try this again

Three years later, the IRGC revisited the city to evaluate three new casino proposals. Concerns about investor connections abounded, notably with key players being involved in a nonprofit push to restore the USS Iowa Battleship. Donors connected to a member of the commission involved in the restoration were found to be involved with both Riverside Casino and Prairie Meadow Casino, both of which lobbied in opposition to the Cedar Crossing proposal.

The three proposals on the table in 2017 each had various accusations lodged against them, sparking worry that organizations were doing whatever they could to garner the favor of approvers. CBS2 Iowa reported on this in more detail.

Six years later, Cedar Rapids remains a casino-less hub.

Could these same worries derail 2023’s proposal?

Casino legislation is complicated and hyper-specific to state markets. Iowa has plenty of land-based casinos, but the commission has denied its approval for various reasons that could just as easily apply in 2023, despite the rapid growth of the gambling industry.

However, there’s one major difference between 2023 and all the previous attempts: online betting. In 2018, the US Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, paving the way for states to legalize sports betting on an individual basis. Iowa’s state Legislature approved online sports betting in 2019, and sportsbooks – online and retail alike – launched in August of the same year.

Iowa sports betting sites are tethered to land-based casinos, which makes it a lucrative revenue stream for existing retail properties. Plus, the state is inching ever closer to legalizing online casinos, which adds yet another stream of money into the mix.

The initial concerns of the IRGC could be moot with online betting in play. In the past, concerns about revenue being lost to nearby competitors were a very real issue. But now, gamblers can pull out a mobile device and place bets right away. This means a retail casino isn’t tied to its location to make money. With a solid online gambling platform, casinos in Iowa can draw players from across the state.

A Cedar Rapids casino could stand to make its fair share of money without putting too much of a dent in casinos’ revenues in surrounding areas. This, of course, is a tad speculative and would depend on the framework for Iowa online casinos and the success of Cedar Rapids’ latest proposal.

While it’s far from a done deal, this latest push for a Cedar Rapids casino appears to have a better foundation than its predecessors.

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Cole Rush

Cole Rush writes words. A lot of them. Most of those words can be found in gambling publications such as PlayIllinois, iGaming Business, Gaming Today, Bonus.com, MidwestSharp.com, ICE 365, and IGB North America. Cole also covers pop culture and books for Tor.com and TheQuillToLive.com. Cole has more than eight years of experience writing about gambling and entertainment.

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