Greene County Supervisor Guy Richardson (left) and Greene County Development Corp. president Norm Fandel, two of the more visible leaders of Grow Greene County, a pro-casino group, celebrate Tuesday night after learning the results of the gaming referendum.
Greene County Supervisor Guy Richardson (left) and Greene County Development Corp. president Norm Fandel, two of the more visible leaders of Grow Greene County, a pro-casino group, celebrate Tuesday night after learning the results of the gaming referendum.
August 7, 2013

Greene County voters Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a gaming referendum, setting the stage for a licensing application with the state and potential development of a casino/entertainment complex in the Jefferson area.

The measure to allow gaming for up to eight years in the county passed 75 percent to 25 percent - with an unofficial vote count of 2,905 to 964 with a 57 percent turnout. The referendum earned strong support throughout the seven precincts in the county. Heavy absentee voting went in favor of the referendum, 77 percent to 23 percent, 1,201 to 349.

"I'm just thrilled," said Guy Richardson, a Greene County supervisor who helped lead the pro-casino Grow Greene County organization. "I was an outspoken advocate for this because I really believed in my heart that this is very, very good for Greene County."

Richardson said proponents, who are working with West Des Moines-based Wild Rose Entertainment on a casino/hotel/convention center, plan to model a Jefferson complex after the one the company operates in Emmetsburg, the Palo Alto County seat. The Jefferson gaming-and-entertainment complex is expected to provide more than 250 jobs, an annual payroll of $6.5 million to $7 million and over $2 million each year to county non-profit organizations and local tax coffers.

"We did our due diligence," said Richardson, a Jefferson Republican. "We went and we looked at Emmetsburg. We really examined what's happened up there and the successes they've had and the fact that they've had none of the ill effects that people were afraid of. I am just thrilled that we got that message across to the voters and the voters agreed with us and overwhelmingly passed this vote tonight."

The referendum is a major first step in the proposed casino development. But it doesn't seal the deal. The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission must approve the plan for Jefferson as well.

Brian Ohorilko, administrator of the commission, said in an interview this morning that the regulatory body plans to conduct a market analysis of gaming in Iowa to determine if, and where, "under-served" areas for legalized gambling exist. The commission is expected to review that study at a March meeting and determine whether to issue more licenses beyond one planned in Linn County, home to Cedar Rapids, Ohorilko said.

The five-member Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission must cast a majority vote for a license to be issued to the non-profit working in conjunction with a casino operator. Iowa currently has 18 state-regulated casinos.

Richardson is optimistic about Jefferson casino's fortunes with the commission.

"I truly believe that the Racing and Gaming Commission is already very intrigued by this location - and certainly the fact that we passed this by this margin is going to be impressive to them, and I think it's going to say to them that this is a good location for a casino," Richardson said.

Ohorilko said community support is one factor the commission considers in making a decision on licensing. Greene County officials could file an application at any point now. Ohorilko said the vetting process takes six to nine months, and that the commission likely will not act on any applications until it reviews the statewide market study.

Richardson said the casino/entertainment complex will define Greene County as a destination, adding to amenities like the bell tower and bike trail.

"There are just a myriad of things that people come to Greene County to see," Richardson said.

Norm Fandel, president of the Greene County Development Corp., which backed the referendum, said the casino is a big component of economic momentum in the region.

"I think moving forward this is just another enhancement to our community," Fandel said.

He said the plan is for Wild Rose to work with Wisconsin-based Cobblestone Inn & Suites on the development. No locations have been released, but development officials say the casino will be in Jefferson to take advantage of the proximity to U.S. Highway 30 and Highway 4.

"We're feeling great about this," Fandel said. "We got a high turnout in the vote. It's a high percentage. I think it's where we need to be in taking that message down to the gaming commission. It's a great added venture to Greene County."

Marcia Rogers, principal with the Cedar Rapids-based political consulting organization SmartVote, said a thorough get-out-the-vote ground game, with strong local support, built a winning campaign.

"We felt that we needed to reach out to voters and make sure everyone was educated," Rogers said. "That doesn't happen with one hit. By one hit I mean mail, one piece of mail, one phone call. You have to do things multiple times because people's lives are busy."

SmartVote has now been involved with successful casino initiatives in Linn County in March as well as Clinton and Burlington in 2010. SmartVote also advocated for the Lyon County and Riverside casinos.

James O. Andrew, a spokesperson for No Casino Greene County, said his organization is disappointed with the results.

"We understand that a democratic process was taken and the answer came back loud and clear," he said.

He thinks the disparity in dollars spent was a major factor in the outcome.

"We all know the biblical story of David and Goliath. Last night we rewrote the Bible and Goliath won," Andrew said.

He added, "We're offended by the idea that $5,000 of local money is put against over $50,000 outside dollars."

Casino advocates registered a political action committee, Grow Greene County, with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board in May. Those opposing casino gambling registered in July as No Casino Greene County.

According to reports filed with the Ethics board, as of July 19, Grow Greene County had $52,511 in donations. Of that total, $51,435 came from Wild Rose Entertainment. No Casino Greene County, as of July 15, reported donations $5,760, all of which has come from Greene County residents.

Andrew said he'd like to see Racing and Gaming officials put a limit on how much money can come from outside groups in these referendums.

He also stressed a conciliatory tone.

"Some people were hurt, and it will take time for wounds to heal, but they will heal, and we'll go back to being the nice town we always have been," Andrew said.

"It's time to bury the hatchet, to go on in a peaceful nature, to be the nice people we've always been."