Thursday, September 5, 2013

Their casino, our casino

(The casino at Cedar Crossing, from KWWL)

Steven Shultis, who thinks about urban issues on the Rational Urbanism blog, recently appeared on the "Strong Towns" podcast to talk about a casino proposal for his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. Shultis, seemingly to his own surprise, supports the casino, and seemed at some pains to explain why an urbanist would do such a thing. His description of the Springfield proposal has some resonance for what's coming to Cedar Rapids. He points up some advantageous aspects which the two share, but also some ways in which Cedar Rapids--despite being in far better shape than Springfield--falls far short in vision.

Springfield is a city of about 150,000 in southwestern Massachusetts. Like many northeastern cities, it has suffered from the loss of industry, and in 2011 a tornado caused extensive damage. Shultis, who lives about a block from where the casino would be built, describes the downtown as a "walkable traditional neighborhood" but with a lot of poverty. The casino, proposed by MGM, was approved by local voters, and is now competing against two other proposals for the approval of the Massachusetts gaming commission. Shultis describes the other two proposals, one for suburban Springfield and one for a nearby small town, as "huge pods off the interstate... isolated from the city." So, some similarities in city size, community support, and recent natural disaster, and the fate of both currently rests in the hands of state commissions. Differences are Springfield is poorer and used to be bigger, and the state decision in Iowa is straight up-or-down without competing proposals.

Shultis makes some points in favor of the MGM proposal that apply also to the casino in Cedar Rapids. By building within the city, infrastructure will not need to be created from scratch (though it will of course need to be improved). The increase in auto traffic will be negligible over what's there already, and anyway we want more people coming downtown. The jobs created, while not appealing to professionals like me, could be a step up for people in poverty. ($20,000 a year, with benefits, says Shultis, is "about $6000 more than the median family income in my neighborhood.") Locating the casinos in their respective cities downtowns puts those jobs within easy reach of those who want them. And the land will surely more be productive (measured, for example, by tax revenue) than it is now.

So far, so good. Shultis goes on to make the following favorable points about the Springfield casino:
  1. The casino would be broken up into the existing street grid. Instead of one pod there would be several buildings, totaling 140,000 square feet of retail space including a bowling alley and a 12-plex movie theater (which downtown Springfield, like downtown Cedar Rapids, currently lacks). To get from one piece to another visitors will need to "step out of the stores into the public realm" and walk the streets of Springfield.
  2. MGM will also build 54 market-rate apartments as part of the project.
  3. MGM will not build a new entertainment venue or arena. Springfield already has an arena, symphony hall, and theater in the area. MGM will bring Cirque de Soleil and their other featured attractions to the city facilities, again enriching the urban area with pedestrians.
  4. MGM will pay a flat tax of $26 million a year on their property, regardless of income.
  5. The voters approved the host agreement between the city and MGM. If MGM is awarded the right to build the casino by the State of Massachusetts, it is obligated to honor all their promises. They can't, for example, decide not to build the bowling alley.
  6. Casino employees can take the bus to work. The hub for the bus system is two blocks away.
All these features gladden Shultis's urbanist heart. The casino could, he concludes, be the catalyst to make a struggling town successful, and he hopes the state takes that into account.

From an urbanist perspective, the Cedar Rapids casino is less alluring.
  1. The casino would be one pod, with a three-story parking garage across 1st Avenue connected by a skywalk. No movie theater, no bowling alley, and in fact, no need for a casino-goer to touch a street or even go outside.
  2. No apartments. This isn't a big issue for me, since there are several residential projects underway or planned for downtown, but it might have helped the Taylor Area.
  3. The casino will include restaurants and an event center, which downtown already has. This map, from the KWWL website, shows the proximity of the casino to the convention center which opened this summer. (Lady Antebellum was the opening act.) It's not a tough walk from the casino to the convention center or downtown restaurants, but no reason to expect casino voters will be making that walk, or any walk.
  4. The casino will pay a flat wagering tax of $1.2 million a year to the city and county, plus 1 percent of gross receipts. It's a smaller casino, but not that much smaller! It will also donate 3 percent of its gross receipts to a non-profit which will make grants to local charities.
  5. Nothing about Cedar Crossing appears to be written in stone. Last month, for example, the proposed size of the casino increased from 142,000 square feet to 171,000 square feet. City Manager Jeff Pomeranz enthused, "It's gotten even better and more beautiful than before." No telling how much more beautiful it will get before it's built. The city voters bought a pig in a poke, albeit with considerable enthusiasm judging from the 61-39 percent winning margin.
  6. Our bus system goes to bed by 7 p.m. on weekdays, and doesn't run at all on Sundays. Employees not within walking distance will need to get and drive a car to work at times when the casino is busiest. If you're busing, Route 1 goes right by the proposed site, but the rebuilt Ground Transportation Center downtown is a bit of a hike.
I expect the Linn County Casino is going to be built, and the results will not be all bad. However, despite its primo location the casino won't enhance the emerging urbanism of downtown Cedar Rapids, nor will it provide much needed connectedness between downtown and the near west side neighborhoods. How did Springfield, which is clearly in more desperate shape than Cedar Rapids, manage to swing such a favorable, far-sighted deal? How did Cedar Rapids manage to miss this opportunity?

SOURCES

Most of this essay was based on "Strong Towns" podcast #147, "The Springfield Casino," available at http://www.strongtowns.org/strong-towns-podcast/2013/8/1/show-147-the-springfield-casino.html; and ongoing coverage of the Linn County casino by The Cedar Rapids Gazette, at http://thegazette.com/linn-county-casino/. Rick Smith's article, "Investors, City Plan for Larger Casino," appeared in the Sunday, August 25, 2013 issue of the Gazette, and is online at http://thegazette.com/2013/08/25/investors-city-plan-for-larger-casino/.

Steven Shultis's blog, Rational Urbanism, is at http://rationalurbanism.com/blog/.

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