Originally Posted Online: March 16, 2013, 7:20 pm
Last Updated: March 17, 2013, 12:45 pm

RDA's Don Decker no stranger to controversy

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By Stephen Elliott, selliott@qconline.com

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Photo: John Greenwood
Don Decker is an accountant by day and also is the Riverboat Development Authority treasurer. He was the initial voice of dissent against the city of Davenport owning a casino, due in part to his research of financials not matching what the city projected.

DAVENPORT - For Don Decker, conflict is nothing new.

So the blunt-talking investment adviser wasn't deterred by the controversy that erupted around him as he led the apparently successful effort to scuttle Davenport's plan to buy the Rhythm City riverboat casino and redo it as a land-based operation.

In October, when the city announced plans to issue $46 to $51 million in general obligation bonds to purchase the casino from Isle of Capri, there was little hint of opposition.

The move, the city said, not only would dramatically reverse the casino's declining fortunes, but it also would keep the profits at home, where they could be used for property tax relief and other worthy causes.

"We have your interest at heart, or the city council would not have taken this rather bold step," Davenport city administrator Craig Malin told the Riverboat Development Authority board on Oct. 25.

The RDA, of which Mr. Decker is treasurer, is a nonprofit board that holds the gaming license for the city of Davenport, collects 4.1 percent of casino profits and distributes them in the community.

RDA president Mary Ellen Chamberlin said, "We have built the Figge. We have built Bucktown. We have built the hotels. We just need to have the casino to make it continue to pay."

Mr. Decker, skeptical of the city's financial projections, stayed silent.

As he studied the numbers further, he said, he considered resigning from the RDA board but decided to fight.

"I do like being involved in stuff at the top level," he said. "I can't help it. I enjoy the fight. The risk to the city's taxpayers on this project was just outrageous."

In December, Mr. Decker, broke his silence, saying the city was "out of its mind" to attempt to buy and operate a casino and that he intended to urge the RDA to reject the plan.

"Demolition Don"

Mr. Decker, 73, of Bettendorf, came to the Quad-Cities in 1972 after working for the Internal Revenue Service and Amtrak, among others.

"I didn't know s--- about the Quad-Cities, but I really liked the people. McGladrey wanted a seasoned tax guy, and I was glad to make the move here." He now works for Robert W. Baird.

The early 1980s were bleak times in the Quad-Cities.

"Jobs were disappearing," he said. "Harvester, Farmall closed up. We were in bad shape. We were trying to get something going."

One day, as Mr. Decker glanced out of his 9th floor downtown Davenport office window, he said, he saw what needed to be done.

"I wanted to puke," he said. "I wanted to blow the f--- out of these buildings."

Enter two nonprofit corporations that Mr. Decker helped run -- Demolition Davenport and Rejuvenate Davenport. Both were created in the late 1980s with the purpose of tearing down old, decrepit buildings, clear the land and, as he says, "let the Phoenix rise from the ashes."

Along with Per Mar Security owner Mike Duffy and other community leaders, Mr. Decker helped raise money, millions according to Curtis Beason, an attorney who served as Demolition Davenport's president.

According to a May 1987 news release from Rejuvenate Davenport, private dollars were put up to restore a city, "hard hit by the farm recession."

"In the next six months, bulldozers will be tearing down abandoned warehouses, pornographic bookstores and decrepit storefronts," the release said.

Mr. Decker was called "Demolition Don" by supporters and detractors alike. He estimates 54 buildings were taken down.

They were replaced by everything from parking lots to the the Quad City Times building, Mr. Duffy said.,

Rallying against the casino purchase

As Mr. Decker circulated his concerns about the city's financial assumptions and estimates in the casino deal, his effort gained momentum. Old friends joined in, as did other business people and community leaders.

"The conditions the city had set for a casino operator were such that it discouraged anybody from looking seriously unless they could get a guarantee from the city," said former Quad City Times publisher John Gardner. "The city prescribed how much of the gross it wanted to get and set up this awkward operating structure.

"I think just by Don raising that issue up, he really provided a service."

The city's plans began to deflate as more and more people joined Mr. Decker in rejecting the city's assumption.

A low point came at a community meeting Feb. 27 at Pepperjack's Restaurant and Lounge, when a shouting match erupted between Mayor Bill Gluba and 80 or so business people, most of them opponents of the casino plans.

On March 4, the RDA, which previously had declined to approve the city's plan without having more information, unanimously agreed to seek private developers for a land-based casino.

All but four members of the Davenport Community Improvement Corp., a board created in November by the city to oversee casino operations, have resigned.

Dreams of a city-owned casino seemingly have crumbled.

"He had a lot of courage to be the loudest and keep at it when he was being lambasted by others," said RDA member Christine Frederick, an attorney. "I think he was vindicated. I personally thank him for not backing down."

"Approach way over the top'

Davenport Ald. Bill Boom, 3rd Ward, a member of the city's casino negotiating committee who has favored a downtown, city-owned casino, views Mr. Decker differently.

"I think Mr. Decker's approach was way over the top," Ald. Boom said. "He was characterizing the city as inept and incompetent and unable to operate a large organization, let alone a casino.

"It does no justice to the image of the city or the city's capability. He made wild accusations. Mr. Decker doesn't have to deal in facts the way we do. I view Mr. Decker as more of a paid lobbyist for the private casino industry."

Neither Mayor Gluba nor Mr. Malin would comment for this story. Mr. Malin said it would be "inappropriate" to do so.

Ms. Chamberlin could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Decker said his casino fight with city officials was not personal.

"The risk, you see, they (city) completely ignored the risk," he said. "They might make $20 million, but without doing the 'what ifs', you're crazy."

A lifetime balancing numbers

A television screen plays financial reports and stock prices near Mr. Decker's office desk as he talks to a client.

The desk is spacious, holding his computer, containers of red licorice and bubble gum. Near the candy jars are a number of ink pens.

"I must have 500 pens," he said. "I like good cigars. I like good bourbon. And I collect pens."

Mr. Decker has spent a lifetime balancing numbers since graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1961. Married to his wife Connie for 52 years, the Deckers have five adopted children and 15 grandchildren.

"I gave my grandkids pens with names on them," he said behind his desk recently. "They cost a lot of money, and the (kids) misuse them and it pisses me off."

In the next breath, a harsh grumble of a laugh escapes from his mouth, erasing obscenities.

"I have five grandkids coming over this weekend," he said. "They keep me young. They say, 'grandpa, you can't curse.' They laugh. They understand. You deal with them straight up.

"One thing I can't stand is true hypocrisy. I mean, hell, we live in a world of smoke and mirrors. I'm a broker. There's no reason for me to f--- with you."

"Don is who he is," Mr. Gardner said. "Don is persistent. He's outspoken. As for the city of Davenport, he has made a contribution over time."