March 12, 2013

A longtime economic-development leader in Iowa called us the other day.

He'd seen the same Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission map we did of Iowa's state-sanctioned gaming facilities, all 18 of them, largely concentrated on the borders to pull players from South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin into the Hawkeye State.

But there's something else that meets the eye straight away with this flagging of our gambling parlors and boats and tracks - a giant open space. It's what casino-industry types, academics and economists, would call "under-served territory" in west-central Iowa. The Carroll area is right in the middle of it, at the intersection of the two major federal highways in the geographic area, U.S. 30 and U.S. 71.

"There's not a nuclear weapons site within two miles of you either," quipped Creighton University economics professor Ernie Goss, a nationally recognized expert on gambling.

When we talk about Carroll County, our culture and economy, we like to define ourselves but what we are, not what we aren't. That said, the absence of a casino, prison and a meatpacking facility (one with a kill floor) is a glimmering badge of self-respect we won't see de-clipped from our collective chest so easily.

We weren't the first ones, and certainly won't be the last, to see the obvious on that racing commission map.

A proposal to legalize excursion-boat gambling in Sac County failed in January 2004 by a wide margin with voters in the northern half of the county casting their ballots

overwhelmingly against the plan.

The gambling referendum went down 58 percent to 42 percent.

Gambling opponents, led by churches, mounted an aggressive and well-organized campaign to defeat the gaming referendum.

Supporters of gambling in Sac County had proposed developing a riverboat-style complex on the Hallett Materials gravel pits outside of Wall Lake. They cited the creation

of 320 jobs and millions of dollars in economic development as reasons to back the plan.

The referendum did earn majority support in the two communities that would have been most directly affected - Wall Lake and Lake View. At the time, siding with economic-development leaders in those cities, The Daily Times Herald supported the gaming plan on our editorial pages.

It's been nearly 10 years since that Sac County vote. More casinos have opened since then in Iowa. To say the gaming culture is ingrained in Iowa is a laughable understatement. It's challenging to make a moral case against a casino when a stray 9-iron shot struck anywhere in Iowa has a 1-in-10 chance of landing near a casino.

"You've already got it in your backyard," Goss said. "It's kind of hard to argue against it."

Goss, author of the book "Governing Fortunes: Casino Gambling in America," has studied the gaming culture of Iowa and neighboring states. Several years ago, he conducted a study of the Council Bluffs casinos (there are now three) that revealed a major pull factor from the Carroll area.

If a casino were developed in west-central Iowa, Goss said, it would largely serve as a defense against the out-migration of consumer dollars to Council Bluffs or Prairie Meadows in Altoona, the most likely destinations for gamblers from here.

"It would tend to cannibalize other casinos, but that's what you want," Goss said in a phone interview from his Omaha, Neb., office Monday morning.

Goss said the social ills and fallout from a casino are usually exaggerated by opponents of new ones.

"It's not calamitous as often implied especially because you have these options available in Iowa," Goss said.

So why hasn't a casino operator looked at west-central Iowa? Surely they see the opening, too. Right?

Of course, Goss said. But, not surprisingly, they're playing the numbers. If the industry can draw players from our area to casinos in other parts of Iowa, why make the capital investment here. "You split your revenues, but you don't split your costs," Goss said.

The economic-development leader with whom we spoke suggested Templeton as one possible location for a casino, citing the proximity to Carroll and the unlimited marketing and branding opportunities associated with Templeton Rye Spirits. There are do doubt other ideas for locations in the area, too.

We aren't supporting any unhatched notions or even encouraging anyone to crack the egg on this. But we're open-minded. We'd look at the numbers. It does seem awfully unfair to see Council Bluffs vacuum away so much of our entertainment spending. On the other hand, casinos are something of crutch - and they'd no doubt hurt some local businesses while helping others.

The good news: if anyone ever got serious about developing a casino, we wouldn't be like helpless slot-machine coin fillers in making decisions at the polls. We'd know what we what were getting into with a casino.

Goss, who recently has been involved with casino studies in Missouri and Kansas, said the business is predictable. West-central Iowans and the industry could accurately predict outcomes were a casino to site in the region.

"It's not something theoretical," Goss said. "It's empirical."