Iowa Racing & Gaming Commissioners Hear Casino Concerns And Support At Hearing
JOHNSTON – While there were lots of people speaking in support of the issuance of new casino licenses in Iowa, there were voices raised in opposition to such a move during a daylong public hearing conducted by the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission Tuesday. The public hearing began at 9:30 a.m. at the Stony Creek Lodge in Johnston, and continued until 6:30 p.m., as both opponents and proponents of additional licenses and new casinos in Ottumwa, Lyon County, Tama County and Fort Dodge presented their cases to the five-member commission.
For local residents, the possibility of a new casino opening in Fort Dodge has been a point of concern, not only from officials of the Wild Rose Casino and Resort, but from business owners, community leaders and governmental officials in Palo Alto County. A total of seven individuals spoke before the commissioners during the public comment session on the Webster County gaming proposal Tuesday morning.
First to speak was Tom Timmons of Wild Rose Entertainment. “While we respect the supporters from Webster County that want a casino, we would respectfully re-state our opposition to their license application.”
Timmons cited the two studies that the IRGC had completed in 2009. “We feel that provides a pretty clear and concise picture of what would happen to Emmetsburg if a casino were constructed in Fort Dodge.”
Using the figures projected by the Innovation Group study on the impact of four new casinos on eight casinos being affected by greater than five percent, which included the Wild Rose Casino and Resort. Timmons presented the IRGC Commissioners with a graph showing the projected revenue loss in 2012 if new casinos were built.
“Looking at this graph, it’s very apparent that Emmetsburg is affected if all four casinos went in, losing 26.4 percent of its revenues, and 21 percent of that 26.4 percent comes from one casino, Fort Dodge,” Timmons pointed out. “That 21 percent is more affect than any other casino experiences.”
Citing the Iowa Administrative Code, Timmons reminded the commissioner that they must take into consideration the impact on existing operations of a casino from another. “Looking at these numbers and the impacts I’ve just shown you, and knowing what would happen, Emmetsburg would not be able to meet its debt commitments right now that we have. It would turn us upside down. I don’t know of a business around that can lose 21 to 26 percent of its revenues and still maintain the same debt structure. Therefore, I am respectfully asking that you deny the Webster County license application.”
Nate Newhouse, a member of the Palo Alto County Gaming Development Corporation told the IRGC Commissioners he understood why there were four applications to build casinos before them. “The original license to Palo Alto County in 2005 did not hurt or take away business from any existing casino,” Newhouse continued. “It did not cause the kind of job losses that we’re facing right now in any other community in the state. In fact, it was the perfect opportunity to create jobs, raise tax dollars for our state and stimulate the regional economy, without cannibalizing any other market, and I applaud the commission for the decision you made, and I also implore you to keep that decision in mind when you make your decision next week.”
Emmetsburg City Administrator John Bird spoke on behalf of the community and spoke of the efforts it took to obtain the license for Palo Alto County. “As a City of Emmetsburg spokesman here today, I want to make sure that you commissioners, and everyone else here understand that we wish no ill on our neighbors in Fort Dodge and Webster County.”
Bird continued. “You can be sure that my presence and message here today would be exactly the same if you were considering a gaming license application for anywhere within 60 miles of Emmetsburg. We understand why some in Fort Dodge and Webster County wish to obtain a state gaming license. I’m sure they too understand why Emmetsburg wishes we had a four-lane divided highway bordering our town, but you know as well as I the state cannot afford to position two major divided highways so close together.
State Representative Marcie Frevert spoke to the commissioners as well, reviewing the positives that the Wild Rose had brought to the county, and added a personal plea. “Please, do not vote to diminish and cannibalize one community for the sake of another.”
State Senator Jack Kibbie also spoke to the benefits the casino had brought to the community and county. Kibbie noted that rural counties under 12,000 in population are entitled to the same benefits and opportunities as other areas of the state. “The casino draws employment from my county, as well as adjacent counties. It provides related jobs, contributes to local non-profits and entertainment. Iowans and non Iowans from a 75 mile radius enjoy our casino and what it provides for a hotel and entertainment.”
Tracey Mattice acknowledged that the state was seeing the expansion of gambling as a way to deal with financial issues. “We are not convinced that expanding gaming licenses will benefit either the state or Palo Alto County. In difficult economic times, discretionary dollars decline, and it is these dollars that make up the majority of revenue for gaming. IF these dollars are simply divided up, the pie is merely shared and no new growth occurs. This does not provide economic stimulus for our state, it merely takes from one entity and gives to another.”
The final speaker for the local contingent was John D. Brown, who noted that the changes in the community due to the impact of the casino have been numerous, but that his major concern would be the effect of another casino on the employees of the Wild Rose. “If a license is granted in Fort Dodge, we’re going to lose employees there, and I feel sorry for them, because I know it’s going to happen.”
Nearly 50 people stood to speak on the Webster County license, but several of that number expressed their opposition. Dr. Gregory Olson expressed questions about tax revenue from the casino, due to Tax Increment Financing bonding for utilities being constructed for the facility, and a lack of sales tax benefit to the local area.
“We’ve only been given projections, and in my book, it’s difficult to plan for the future on a maybe,” Olson said.
William Doane also spoke against the application, citing concerns misrepresentation, abuses of power and possible violations of political campaign donation laws in the license application process. “You commissioners have an opportunity to commit an act of public virtue in the midst of ethical chaos,” Dean said, urging denial of the Webster County application.
Blair Conley of Fort Dodge told the commissioners the gambling industry was corrupt, and the process of applying for the gaming license had brought a bad light on the community. “Please, do not sentence our youth to this sin. Gambling is a sin, and we are not all in.”
After hearing comments, the five-member Iowa Racing and Gaming Commissioners will meet again on Thursday, May 13, at the Stony Creek Inn in Johnston to make a final decision on the four applications for new casino licenses.