CEDAR RAPIDS — Leaders of the anti-casino campaign here insist that bringing a casino to town will hurt existing businesses and jobs, enrich only a small group of investors and empty the pockets of people who can’t afford to lose money.
Why, then, did voters in each of the 14 Iowa counties with existing casinos go to the polls in November 2010, just two years ago, and overwhelmingly vote to keep their gaming operations in place?
If a casino is such a destructive force in a community, why did the casino question on the ballot in 2010 garner 74 percent backing in Black Hawk County; 81 percent in Clarke County; 82 percent in Clayton County; 77 percent in Clinton County; 74 percent in Des Moines County; 82 percent in Dubuque County; 67 percent in Lyon County; 86 percent in Palo Alto County; 74 percent in Polk County; 80 percent in Pottawattamie County; 74 percent in Scott County; 78 percent in Washington County; 77 percent in Woodbury County; and 86 percent in Worth County?
Leaders in those communities say the answer is simple — the casino creates jobs, adds an entertainment option, brings people to town and provides much-needed annual revenue from casino profits for local government and especially for local community organizations.
Then, too, the answer is equally simple for those who are working to defeat the casino measure up for a vote in Linn County on March 5. The counties with casinos have grown “addicted” to the portion of casino revenue that comes their way, casino opponents say.
“They are codependents (with the casino),” says Scott Stines, one of the spokesman for Just Say No Casino campaign in Linn County. “They have money in their budgets which is tied to people and programs they don’t want to lose.”
Michael Richards, another spokesman for Just Say No Casino, says Iowa — which he calls “the world capital of family frugality, the American work ethic and human productivity” — took a wrong turn years ago when it headed down “the slippery slope of a casino economy.” He blames Iowa lawmakers, which he calls the “lemmings,” who first voted to lead Iowa off “the gambling fiscal cliff.”
David Osterberg, who is an opponent of casino gaming in Linn County and was back in 2003 when the issue was defeated here, was in the Iowa Legislature at the time lawmakers first passed riverboat gambling in the state more than 20 years ago.
The law’s authors, says Osterberg, an associate professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa and the founder of the Iowa Policy Project, “were so very clever” in requiring that each casino donate a portion of revenue to local charities.
“Local non-profits are always short of cash, and it does not take much in the way of small grants going to the Boy Scouts or some other group to establish fast friendships with the gambling operators,” Osterberg said. “ … Once any gambling entity faces an election to end their local monopoly, they can call in support from the local entities they have given to.
“Casinos are bad for the community, but they may be good — a little good — for people who can’t see the forest for their little tree that does some local good.”
Cities see success
It’s easy to find a different story in Iowa’s casino cities.
Bob Gallagher Jr., the mayor of Bettendorf in Scott County, says there is no other way to characterize the 2010 casino vote in Scott County, where there is a casino in both Bettendorf and next door in Davenport, as “overwhelming” support for keeping the casinos in place.
“It’s my position that the voters see the positive of having another entity that pumps millions of dollars into the community for our non-profit organizations and those organizations that have a need,” Gallagher says. “I think the voters made a determination that (the casino) is an option, that if you want to use it as entertainment value, certainly that is acceptable.”
He surmises that voters, too, understand that there is a statewide program for those who are problem gamblers, a program funded by revenues from the casinos.
Mark Schroeder, the coordinator of Iowa State University’s Extension Service program in Clinton and president of the board of directors of the Clinton Chamber of Commerce, says Clinton, like Bettendorf, has a 20-year history with casino gaming in the city, a history he calls a success for the community.
“The bottom line: The casino returns a lot of dollars to the community. It’s a significant amount of money,” says Schroeder, noting that Iowa’s gaming law requires casinos to direct some money to the local non-profit gaming association for distribution to community entities.
The list of community improvements in Clinton is long, Schroeder says, as he begins to list them — the ballpark for Clinton’s minor league baseball team, the city’s marina, a new RV park.
In Altoona, the suburban Des Moines home to Prairie Meadows Race Track and Casino, Melissa Horton, executive vice president of the Altoona Area Chamber of Commerce, puts it this way: “We had a handful of very passionate community leaders who felt this was going to be a boon for Altoona, and by golly if they weren’t correct. … I will tell you we’ve had nothing but positive with Prairie Meadows being in our neighborhood.
“I understand people’s concerns, and I think people around this area had those same concerns when we were starting up,” Horton continues. “But I think they’ve been quieted down because (the track and casino) been such good neighbors. We are tickled to have them here.”
Bettendorf’s Gallagher said the city built its own convention center in the last few years at the casino site — city leaders in Cedar Rapids are thinking a casino could help Cedar Rapids’ new convention center — where there also are two hotels. It’s a mix of facilities that has made the convention center a quick success as a place for business meetings, conventions and even weddings, Gallagher says.
Businesses, he said, haven’t closed because of the casino. And though the casino itself has not spurred the growth of other businesses next to it, the convention center has, he said.
In Clinton, Schroeder said the initial idea that a casino would become “a major economic engine” that would bring hotels and other development to the city really never happened. At the same time, businesses haven’t closed their doors either because of the casino, he said.
In the end, many of those who come to the casino in Clinton are not from Clinton, but come from the region, including from across the Mississippi River in Illinois.
“They drive to Clinton, spend some money at the casino — and we’ll get a percentage of that — and go home,” Schroeder says. “And our feeling is that’s OK. It’s a good thing.”