The Rhythm City Casino-owned Blackhawk Hotel stands three blocks from the gambling boat. It sounds like a short distance, but those three blocks include one unpleasant journey across five lanes of River Drive. And they cost money, the owners argue - for them and for the citizens of Davenport.

They claim that a riverfront casino-hotel complex - or at the very least, a hotel closer to the boat - will generate new profits for them and new money for community projects through the Riverboat Development Authority. And that's why there's been lots of discussion in recent months about Rhythm City building a riverfront hotel for the casino.

But talk of a new hotel creates concerns about the fate of the 350-room Blackhawk Hotel, which was built in 1915 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The success of the city-owned RiverCenter as a convention center could also hinge on what happens to the Blackhawk.

The possibility of a riverfront hotel also calls into question the necessity of the River Renaissance sky bridge across River Drive, which will dump people at the casino's doorstep. A larger issue is whether making it easier for casino patrons to ignore downtown north of River Drive is good for the community.

Technically, this is a private issue, and the city and citizens have no leverage in terms of the Blackhawk: If the casino chooses to shut down the hotel, there's nothing that can stop it. But the casino is talking a good game about wanting public input and approval. In addition, the casino claims it wants to keep the Blackhawk operating as a hotel, although it has no plans to run the older property if it builds a new facility.

Whatever the casino's intentions, it's important to remember that the community, particularly the RiverCenter, is relying on the good will of the casino to save the Blackhawk.

"There Aren't Many Easy Options Available"

Nancy Donovan, general manager of both the Rhythm City and Isle of Capri casinos in the Quad Cities, said she began last fall having discussions with the City of Davenport and DavenportOne about the possibility of a new hotel nearer to the Rhythm City casino.

"Having the casino in close proximity to the hotel ... is going to help us grow our revenues," Donovan said.

There's plenty of evidence that hotel-casino complexes perform better financially than stand-alone casinos, said Mary Ellen Chamberlin, president of the Riverboat Development Authority (RDA). That organization holds the Rhythm City gambling license and distributes a portion of gaming revenues for community projects and programs. "There are three [casinos in Iowa] that stand out from the others" in terms of their revenues, said Chamberlin: two in Council Bluffs and the Isle of Capri in Bettendorf. They all have hotels attached to or near the gambling boats.

Chamberlin said that with a hotel nearer to the casino, the Riverboat Development Authority and other bodies that benefit from the Rhythm City Casino can expect to receive from one-third more to double the money they currently get from the gaming boat. The Scott County Regional Authority, which distributes gambling proceeds for the Isle of Capri in Bettendorf, gets about double the revenue of the RDA, she said.

Donovan said the casino has not purchased any property at this point, and Chamberlin said there have been discussions about three or four locations, all closer to the casino than the Blackhawk. She declined to name them, saying that "they're still very nebulous." Rumored possible sites have included above the Junior Achievement building on Second Street, across the street at the site of the Rhythm Courtyard, or on River Drive near The Dock restaurant.

"When we look at the downtown grid, there aren't many easy options available," said Tara Barney, senior vice president for downtown economic development for DavenportOne. "There are some great options, but they're expensive."

As for timing, Chamberlin said a new hotel would "need to happen in conjunction with River Renaissance," meaning that it would probably open by mid-2005, when the last elements of the $113-million project are scheduled to be completed. She added that the casino would like a concept agreed upon this year.

A new casino-hotel complex wouldn't necessarily be a detriment to Rhythm City's chief competitor, Jumer's Casino Rock Island across the Mississippi. "They could increase their profits," said William Renk, vice president of sales and marketing for Jumer's Casino Rock Island. But that increase would primarily come from out-of-area visitors, not from his company's boat. "This market is a localized market," he said, meaning that the two boats currently compete for local customers. A hotel "allows you to reach a broader audience," he said.

The casino is clearly trying to build some consensus about the need for a new riverfront hotel. Rhythm City hopes to have the topic of a riverfront hotel considered as part of a larger riverfront-development plan by the City of Davenport. In March, the planning firm Hargreaves Associates gave a presentation to local businesses and interested residents, and that firm might be awarded a contract to develop a long-range plan for the city's entire riverfront. (See "Planning Firm Hopes to Spark Community Conversation about Davenport Development," River Cities' Reader Issue 416, March 12-18, 2003.)

Donovan said the casino would like to be part of any evaluation, and added that it would pay for the portion of the study dealing with a riverfront hotel. "We know there's going to have to be a lot of public input," Donovan said.

That sensitivity to local opinion is a function of a lot of factors, including the fact that the gambling boats are a public trust. In that vein, the casino might face some opposition with any hotel plan that restricts riverfront access or obstructs a river view. "I think they're facing this community's passion about direct access to the river," Barney said. In addition, she said, the casino might have difficulty getting U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approval for a riverfront site.

Implications of a New Hotel

All parties, including the casino, agree that it's important for Davenport to maintain a hotel connected to the RiverCenter - in theory, at least.

"It's imperative they [Blackhawk hotel rooms] stay available and in the inventory," Barney said. "We want to make sure they're always there."

"The key is to keep it operating as a hotel somehow," Chamberlin said. "The casino wants to be a good corporate citizen. They have a commitment to that concept. There should be a win-win. ... The whole thing has to be a package that benefits everybody. Everybody wants the Blackhawk to stay a hotel."

"Meeting planners ... are very interested in the ease and convenience for their attendees," said Cheryl Ealy, vice president of sales for the Quad-Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau. The Blackhawk Hotel, combined with rooms from the Radisson on Second Street, provides that for the RiverCenter.

"The hotel being adjacent to that is important to the long-term success of the RiverCenter," Donovan said.

But that sentiment does not mean that Rhythm City would continue to run the Blackhawk if it builds a new hotel. "For us to operate two hotels doesn't make sense," Donovan said.

So who would agree to buy or operate the Blackhawk, an 88-year-old building? "There is not a preferred alternative" at this point, Barney said. The city-owned RiverCenter benefits the most from the presence of the Blackhawk, but it would seem to be an unlikely choice to either purchase or run the hotel.

"The city has an interest in optimizing the RiverCenter," said Davenport City Administrator Craig Malin. He didn't say the city couldn't take on the Blackhawk - "We're not in the hotel business," he said. "We are in the convention business" - but said there have been no formal discussions to that effect. He said that if the casino decides to build a new hotel, the city would like to see "an exit that would include a strategy for improving the Blackhawk." What few people are discussing is that the Blackhawk could close if no buyer is found.

It's possible that a new hotel would actually help the RiverCenter's convention business, assuming the Blackhawk stays open. "The Blackhawk is [currently] not actively pursuing conventions with the RiverCenter," Ealy said, instead focusing on its primary business: "They're looking for the gamer."

The RiverCenter typically hosts conventions of 250 people or more, with room needs of between 200 and 250. The Radisson can provide 150 rooms, Ealy said, and the Blackhawk can provide the remainder - providing that it's willing to give up the rooms. Presently, she said, those rooms aren't being made available on weekends. In that way, a new casino hotel and a Blackhawk under different management might help the RiverCenter land more conventions. "I'm actually thinking very positively" about the possibility of a new Rhythm City hotel, Ealy said.

There are additional questions about the planned skybridge that would, in essence, connect the casino to Second Street. The bridge would dump people at the entrance of the casino, and was pitched as a way to connect amenities on both sides of River Drive, including parking ramps and the River Music Experience. For years, people have complained that casino patrons generally don't cross River Drive, meaning that downtown businesses get little bump from the casino patrons. A riverfront casino hotel, of course, might make River Drive seem even wider. With an on-site hotel, why would people come downtown?

Chamberlin sits on the Vision Iowa Board that gave River Renaissance $20 million. A riverfront hotel would arguably work against the momentum that Davenport is trying to build with River Renaissance by encouraging casino patrons to remain south of River Drive, but Chamberlin said a hotel wouldn't affect plans for the sky bridge. "The sky bridge isn't going to change regardless," Chamberlin said, because the primary amenities for both the casino and LeClaire Park - primarily parking - are north of River Drive.

She added that the sky bridge will not directly connect to the casino, unless Rhythm City chooses to create such a connection at its own cost. The $6.8-million bridge includes $500,000 in funding from the City of Davenport and $3.5 million from Vision Iowa. The RDA is contributing $1 million to the project, and Rhythm City's parent company is adding $1.8 million.

"The city's committed to the skywalk," Malin said. Construction should begin this summer.

Chamberlin stressed that a hotel is necessary for the casino to grow. "We're seeing these tiers develop in the casino industry in Iowa," she said, with the hotel-and-casino complexes at the top and Rhythm City in the second tier. "We don't want to stay there."

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