RYAN J. FOLEY
BURLINGTON — The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission voted 3-2 on Thursday to grant a license for a $40 million casino development that will be located in rural central Iowa.
Supporters of the casino proposed in Jefferson, a town of 4,200 about 60 miles northwest of Des Moines, burst into applause when commission chairman Jeff Lamberti cast the deciding vote in favor of the license during a meeting in Burlington.
Lamberti said it was a "very, very difficult decision," noting concerns that the gambling market in Iowa is saturated and the casino would drain business from Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in suburban Des Moines. But he said the economic benefit for a rural area that has struggled was a deciding factor.
"I do have an interest in making sure that rural folks get part of this as well," he said.
The vote marks the first license granted for a new casino in Iowa since 2010, and could be the last for several years. Lamberti told reporters after the vote that the commission was considering a moratorium on new licenses, and would announce the details at a meeting next month.
The approval comes two months after the commission voted 4-1 to reject a proposed $164 million casino development in Cedar Rapids, the state's second largest city. Commissioners said that casino would have taken too much business away from existing casinos in Riverside, Waterloo and elsewhere.
Wild Rose Entertainment, which owns casinos in Emmetsburg and Clinton, will build the Jefferson development at the intersection of Highway 30 and Highway 4. It would include 525 slot machines, table games, an events center and a 71-room hotel. The company's president and chief operating officer, Tom Timmins, said construction would begin in the next 30 days, with a goal of opening the casino in August 2015.
Plans call for the casino to hire 275 employees, adding $7 million annually in payroll and benefits to the local economy. Wild Rose has agreed to give five percent of its adjusted gross revenue to the license holder, Grow Greene County, which will use the estimated $1.5 million annually to support nonprofit groups and civic projects throughout the region.
Two consultants hired by the commission recommended in February against approving the project, saying the state would be better served by investing in existing casinos than building new ones. The consultants said that 18 state-licensed casinos were enough to serve Iowa's population of 3 million and any additional licenses would hurt existing facilities.
Commissioners cited those studies in rejecting the Cedar Rapids casino. But Lamberti said the casino in Jefferson would only mainly hurt the Des Moines area, where the economy is booming and "will be just fine."
Commissioners Dolores Mertz and Rich Arnold joined Lamberti in backing the license, noting the overwhelming community support for the plan and its economic impact in a rural area.
"I just really think that rural Iowa is missing something and especially in north central Iowa. Everything that we have goes toward the population centers and that's understandable," Mertz said. "But sometimes, can't rural Iowa have a little piece of the action? I think so."
Commissioners Carl Heinrich and Kris Kramer voted against the license. Heinrich said he saw "no significant advantage" to the state, given the potential negative impact it would have on Prairie Meadows and the small population that would be served. Kramer said there were no longer any underserved gambling markets in Iowa.