DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa gambling regulators narrowly
voted to approve the state’s first new casino in four years, but sent strong
signals it’s likely to be the last one for some time.
By a 3-2 vote June 12, the five-member Iowa Racing and
Gaming Commission approved the $40 million project in Jefferson by Wild Rose
Entertainment, which already operates casinos in Emmetsburg and Clinton.
It will be the 19th state-licensed casino and the first
approved by the commission since 2010. The state also has three casinos operated
by American Indian tribes.
With 3.1 million people, Iowa has 18,000 slot machines and
about 470 tables for poker and other games at the 18 state-run casinos. Iowa
allows one of the widest ranges of legalized gambling choices among 41 states
with casinos, including charitable gaming, pari-mutuel wagering, lotteries,
commercial casinos, Indian casinos, dog racing casinos and a horse racing
Nationally, there are about 1,000 casinos generating gross
revenue of nearly $68 billion.
William Thompson, a professor at the University of Nevada at
Las Vegas who studies gambling, was surprised Iowa regulators approved the
Greene County casino and puzzled the development will be in a rural area likely
dependent on gamblers from small, farming communities. Thompson said money spent
at the new casino would mean less for other local businesses.
“It amazes me that they keep pushing, but you’re always
going to have investors that want more casinos and the government people will
say hurray, hurray more tax money,” he said. “They’re going to drain the local
To the contrary, Wild Rose CEO Tom Timmins said the casino
will provide sorely needed local facilities for banquets, weddings and hotel
rooms. The casino and hotel is projected to create 275 jobs in a community that
has seen declining population for years.
The company promises to share 5 percent of the casino’s
revenue — about $1.5 million a year — for charitable groups in Greene County and
Last August, voters in Greene County endorsed the proposed
Jefferson casino with 75 percent approval, the highest level of support for an
initial casino vote in Iowa.
The commission’s approval followed the panel’s rejection of
a proposed Cedar Rapids casino by a 4-1 vote in April. At that time
commissioners cited two studies that found Iowa’s gambling market to be
saturated with so many casinos that new ones would simply snag customers from
existing operations and reduce their revenue.
It was estimated the Jefferson casino will take much of its
estimated $30 million annual revenue from other casinos, primarily Prairie
Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Altoona and the Wild Rose Casino in Emmetsburg.
Prairie Meadows, 70 miles southeast of Jefferson, opposed
granting of a license.
Prairie Meadows generated nearly $187 million in gross
revenue last year. It would lose an estimated $13 million to the new casino,
about 7 percent of its annual yearly gross revenue.
Commission Chairman Jeff Lamberti concluded Prairie Meadows
“will be just fine.”
He and commissioners Dolores Mertz and Rich Arnold justified
their votes by saying rural areas deserved to benefit from gambling as much as
Commissioner Carl Heinrich cited the impact on Prairie
Meadows and Kris Kramer pointed to the consultant studies’ conclusions in
casting no votes.
The Emmetsburg casino, 90 miles north of Jefferson, also is
owned by Wild Rose Entertainment, so the estimated loss of $3.6 million, or
about 11 percent of its annual gross revenue, would only shift revenue from one
property to another.
The studies warned that increasing competition from
neighbors, primarily Illinois and Wisconsin, is likely to cut into the number of
gamblers in Iowa. The state gets nearly half of its gamblers from surrounding
states with nearly a quarter coming from Nebraska.
Six of Iowa’s casinos are within easy driving distance of
Nebraska with three located in Council Bluffs, two in Sioux City and one in
Larchwood in the northwest corner of the state.
The reports concluded that Iowa’s modest population growth
coupled with adjacent state competition pulling gamblers away means Iowa should
stop building casinos.
Lamberti said that situation will be discussed at a July 31
meeting in Johnston.
“I think this vote clearly reflects a belief that this is a
saturated market,” he said. “As you look at the studies and where we’re at, I
think that’s a safe assumption.”
The commission stopped granting licenses between May 1998
and November 2004 and again between July 2005 and May 2010.
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