A guarded optimism is surrounding the possibility of getting Davenport's latest casino proposal on a fast track, with the next steps up to the Riverboat Development Authority and Isle of Capri.
City officials revealed plans Tuesday for a proposed partnership with Quad-City developer Rodney Blackwell. A development agreement would obligate the city to spend $33 million on land, infrastructure and buildings for a casino and hotel off Interstate 80. In exchange for taxpayers' investment, Blackwell would invest another $100 million in the project, own the casino and hire Minnesota-based Ingenus Management/Consulting to manage it.
Blackwell also would return 11.4 percent of his profits to the city. The current casino arrangement gives Davenport 1.65 percent of Rhythm City's gross gaming receipts.
The deal would add about $14 million annually to city, county, school district and Riverboat Development Authority coffers, partly through property tax payments, which Rhythm City's owner, Isle of Capri, is not obligated to make at its riverfront location with a floating casino.
The plan is under review by the RDA, which also is considering other proposals. The authority holds the city's gaming license and is responsible for divvying up about $2 million in gaming proceeds annually throughout the community. Under the Blackwell proposal, the RDA's share of casino profits would nearly double to about $3.9 million.
Mary Ellen Chamberlin, RDA president, said the group has not yet met with Blackwell but plans to do so soon. A spokesperson for Isle of Capri declined to say whether negotiations for the sale of Rhythm City are under way, referring any questions to the RDA, which, she said, is "taking the lead on this process."
The RDA and Isle of Capri currently hold all the cards, Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission chairman Jeff Lamberti said.
"The RDA and Isle ultimately have to agree," he said Wednesday. "Neither is a party to this at the moment. They could sign off on stuff pretty quickly — if they were in agreement."
In fact, Lamberti said the gaming commission's next meeting is set for June 6, and it is possible a sufficient amount of documentation would be available to get the Blackwell proposal on the agenda.
"There is a lot of legal documentation," he said. "But I wouldn't say it's impossible."
Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba and City Administrator Craig Malin also identified possible timelines, including a best-case-scenario construction start as early as late summer.
"(Members of the RDA) know the city wants this deal done," Gluba said. "They know the state wants the deal done. My guess is, they'll act quickly ... a week, maybe."
The mayor said the public's reaction to the latest casino plan has been subtle.
"There's always going to be naysayers, no matter what I do or the city does," he said, recalling the opposition by some to the city's incentives for renovations at Hotel Blackhawk. "I think, overall, people are satisfied this is the middle ground ... generally a compromise. If you can't get a meal, take a sandwich."
In this case, he said, taxpayers should find the "sandwich" appealing.
"Some people say, 'Oh, $33 million!'" he said of the city's investment. "The city of Bettendorf, when they did their deal with Isle of Capri, they borrowed $23 million. We are three times the size of Bettendorf, and have four or five times the tax base."
One compelling reason for city officials to want to see a new interstate casino arrive as quickly as possible is to compete with Jumer's Casino & Hotel on the interstate in Rock Island, where a major retail development, Jumer's Crossing, is in the works.
"Jumer's is talking about putting something out there in the swamp land," Gluba warned. "Blackwell has all sorts of plans and ideas, including a nine-hole golf course."
Added Malin, "Iowa (travelers) would have to pass our casino and drive 12 more miles to get to Jumer's. I don't know why they would want to do that."
Lamberti said the interstate location is one of two possible advantages the Blackwell plan may have going for it when it reaches the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.
"Our big thing was, we didn't believe downtown was the proper place," he said of earlier plans for a downtown casino, possibly owned by the city. "It is probably also fair to say we would prefer a private owner."
Though the RDA and Isle of Capri could settle their roles in the development fairly quickly, Lamberti said, the commission will take longer.
"There is a lot of due diligence for the commission ... development agreement, financials, background checks," he said. "That's really where the bigger time frame comes in."
Meanwhile, Malin said city officials can quickly hammer out details of the Blackwell agreement to get it to a city council vote.
"We have (an) agreement, in concept, on significant deal points, and it would not take long to draft a definitive agreement for final review," he said, adding, "days, not weeks."