More than 500 people filed in and out of the Sierra Community Theatre in Jefferson for a public hearing Thursday on a proposed casino in Jefferson.
More than 500 people filed in and out of the Sierra Community Theatre in Jefferson for a public hearing Thursday on a proposed casino in Jefferson.
May 30, 2014



Jefferson

More than 500 Greene County residents and other Iowans Thursday afternoon swelled the historic Sierra Community Theatre just a skip from the Jefferson town square to voice varied opinions on a proposed $40-million casino-and-entertainment complex planned for the county seat.

The majority of the 70 people who spoke during the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission's public hearing stressed passionate support for the project, largely based on what they said is the economic-development potential the casino and its estimated 325 jobs would bring to the region. The hearing, which started just after noon, lasted nearly five hours.

The five-member state regulatory panel will vote June 12 on the fate of the casino license for Greene County during a regular session scheduled at the Catfish Bend Casino in Burlington.

Last August, Greene County voters passed a gaming referendum with 75 percent "yes" votes - the highest margin of victory for a casino-introduction referendum in the history of Iowa. Votes to renew licenses for longtime casinos around Iowa have been higher.

Job growth, new entertainment and hospitality options and a revenue base that can be pumped back into area nonprofits are benefits casino supporters listed in making the case for West Des Moines-based Wild Rose Entertainment's plans to build in Jefferson.

"I think this could be the catalyst for a much greater development for Greene County and this region," said Sid Jones, president of Home State Bank in Jefferson.

Economic-development and political leaders from Greene's surrounding counties joined the project push, taking to the podium and saying the casino would help with a rural revitalization in a broad swath of west-central Iowa.

"Whenever we do these kinds of indirect job-creation and economic-development programs, we see a bulk of the benefits going to urban Iowa," said State Rep. Chip Baltimore, a Boone Republican who represents Greene County. "The more we encourage those kinds of things, and refuse to accept the fact that this is an opportunity for several hundred jobs to be created in rural areas, then we'll continue to see population declines and the death spiral of rural Iowa as we move forward."

Baltimore drew some of the more sustained applause of the session when he called on the commission to vote for the license.

Jefferson Mayor Craig Berry said the location of the casino will boost traffic at the crossroads of U.S. Highway 30 and Highway 4. The casino would be built on the northwest side of that intersection.

"This will bring the possibility of highway expansion to connect the region together for rural economic development," Berry said.

Rick Hunsaker, executive director of Region 12 Council of Governments, which serves Greene County, said the casino will bring new amenities to Jefferson and the surrounding area.

"As far as having a casino in Greene County, this will really add to the critical mass as we try to market for people to move here, visit here and have business locate or expand here," Hunsaker said. "It's important we have a critical mass of amenities, this will help that."

Former Des Moines Register columnist Chuck Offenburger, who lives in Cooper, just south of Jefferson, highlighted the history of gaming in Iowa and the stories of struggling towns that were able to rebuild into prosperous communities in a welcoming rally for the commission at Jefferson's community and recreation center.

"Over my career I have watched the gaming industry take a leading role in rebuilding Iowa," Offenburger said. "In Greene County we know full and well what happens if you live in decline for too long, and we've had enough of it. We want to grow."

Over the last half century, Greene County has lost 36 percent of its population, going from 14,379 in 1960 to an estimated 9,153 in 2012, according to the U.S. Census. Greene County lost 10 percent of its population from 2000 to 2010.

A majority of the opposition that spoke during the open forum came from existing Iowa gambling venues.

"Reports conclude there are no under-served gaming communities," said Gary Palmer, CEO of Prairie Meadows Racetrack & Casino in Altoona. "Iowa would be better served if existing casinos reinvented their facilities and kept their assets upgraded."

Richard Wilkey of Polk County, a former president of the Racing Association of Central Iowa who was involved with the start up of Prairie Meadows, does not see a Greene County casino significantly cannibalizing Polk County gaming revenue.

"Prairie Meadows is going to do just fine whether this project is built or it isn't," Wilkey said. "I wouldn't be standing here today if I thought Prairie Meadows was going to be damaged by this project. My heart is in the Prairie Meadows project. I think this community from this and Prairie Meadows will do just fine. It's a win-win."

Several Iowa horse industry officials and breeders joined the opposition, saying that any moves that potentially hurt Prairie Meadows' bottom line jeopardize the Hawkeye State's equine economy.

"The only casino in Iowa that has any relation to agriculture is Prairie Meadows," said Warren Bush, a Wall Lake attorney involved in the horse industry.

But proponents countered that, big picture, the benefits of a casino far outweigh potential fallout.

Wild Rose Entertainment and its nonprofit Greene County partner have inked an agreement that would boost the casino's charitable contributions, making an estimated $300,000 available each year for public and charitable projects in neighboring counties.

The West Des Moines-based gaming operator has committed to contributing 4 percent of its gambling profits - an estimated $1.2 million annually - to Grow Greene County Gaming Corp. for public-minded endeavors within Greene County and among its cities. An additional 1 percent would be allotted for projects in surrounding counties.

The casino expects adjusted gaming revenues of $30 million.

"While this is a Greene County project, the benefits are regional in terms of employment, support for local suppliers and vendors, and new entertainment opportunities," said Norm Fandel, president of Grow Greene County Gaming Corp., the nonprofit associated with Wild Rose in Jefferson. "We believe that as a regional project, we should share the nonprofit benefits regionally and support projects and charities in contiguous counties."

Iowa law requires casinos to give at least 3 percent of the adjusted gaming revenues to their partner nonprofits. The state average for such contributions to Iowa's 18 state-regulated casinos is 4.1 percent.

In order to distribute the funds to neighboring counties, the Greene County charity plans to accept applications. Charity officials say the money will be awarded on a competitive basis - not based on population or an annual split.

Greene County is bordered by six counties - Carroll, Calhoun, Webster, Boone, Dallas and Guthrie.

In an interview, Wild Rose founder and CEO Gary Kirke said the casino complex is the "economic opportunity of a lifetime" for Greene County.

"People in Greene County are very creative in their arguments," Kirke said of casino advocates.

Kirke said he believes Wilkey's input will carry weight with the commission.

"The founder of Prairie Meadows coming here and saying it won't affect Prairie Meadows was very significant today," Kirke said. "That really was very significant."

Gaming Commission Chairman Jeff Lamberti, an attorney who lives in Ankeny, said the public hearing gives the commissioners authentic insight into Greene County.

"It's important to see the support of the community," Lamberti said.

Lamberti said the hearing showed broad-based regional support for the casino complex.

"That was helpful, I thought," Lamberti said.

One commissioner, retired Democratic State Rep. Delores Mertz of Algona, revealed her possible leaning on the Jefferson license with the selection of her attire - a green polka dot blouse with a matching shirt.

"Well, I don't know, green does mean 'go,' doesn't it," Mertz said.

Tom Timmons, Wild Rose president and chief operating officer, said the company is already working with contractors and architects and is poised to begin initial construction with a July 2015 expected completion date - should the go-ahead come from the gaming commission.