BURLINGTON — With freshly minted approval from state regulators Thursday morning, Wild Rose Entertainment projected an August 2015 opening for a $40-million Jefferson casino-and-entertainment complex.
The Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission voted 3-2 to approve a gaming license for Grow Greene County Gaming Corp., the non-profit associated with the development of the casino. That follows a county referendum last August in which 75 percent of voters approved bringing gaming to Greene County.
Iowa’s state gambling regulators held Greene County casino supporters in suspense until the final seconds as Racing and Gaming Commission Chairman Jeff Lamberti broke a 2-to-2 tie, citing rural economic development as the deciding factor in what had been a back-and-forth, day-by-day decision for him, a choice that included a sleepless Wednesday night in Burlington, site of the commission meeting at the Catfish Bend Casino.
“I think my gut told me it was the right call,” Lamberti said in an interview. “But it’s so close.”
Lamberti stressed challenges in weighing interests of various stakeholders. In the end, Lamberti, an Ankeny attorney and former Republican lawmaker, said Prairie Meadows and Polk County count many positive developments — and that both will flourish even with a modest hit to income expected to Altoona gaming with a Greene County casino.
“I do see an economic benefit of the casino in Greene County,” Lamberti said in remarks during the commission meeting.
At the same time, the project effects on other casinos were within parameters where licenses had been granted to new casinos in the past, he said.
“We have lots of advantages in Polk County, and I think we have lots of advantages that are going to come in the future,” Lamberti said. “We’ve got significant population growth among all of our suburbs. We’ve got some good things in the works that are pretty historic by Iowa standards, and quite frankly, we have advantages that a lot of other parts of the state don’t have.”
Lamberti said a sense of rural-urban fairness factored into his tie-breaking call.
“Being from Polk County, I do have an interest in making sure that the rural folks get part of this as well so that does have an impact on my decision,” Lamberti said.
Commission member Delores Mertz, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Algona, said the Greene County project enjoyed strong west-central Iowa community support, and is planned in an “ideal” and “accessible” site on the northwest side of the U.S. Highway 30 and Highway 4 intersection in Jefferson.
“Sometimes, can’t rural Iowa have a little piece of the action?” Mertz said. “I think so.”
The third favorable vote came from Richard Arnold, a small business owner and farmer from Russell, who said the benefits of job creation and rural renewal outweighed the collection of concerns presented by opponents.
The two commissioners in opposition to the license cited market studies they believe showed lack of significant demand for new casinos and negative effects on the current Iowa gaming industry.
“I want to encourage existing casinos to invest,” said Carl Heinrich of Council Bluffs, the former president of Iowa Western Community College.
Kristine Kramer, owner of K & W Motors, Ltd., in New Hampton, said she didn’t believe there were underserved areas of Iowa for casino patrons.
“It is not the time for any more new casinos,” she said.
Marquette Advisors, an international gaming consultant with an office in Minneapolis, projected some cannibalization of existing casinos associated with the Greene County casino — $6 million expected to flow to Wild Rose Jefferson from Prairie Meadows in Altoona; $4.5 million from Meskwaki, the Native American casino in Tama; $3.2 million from Wild Rose in Emmetsburg; and $8.3 million from other casinos.
Tom Timmons, president of chief operating officer of Wild Rose, said in an interview that an official groundbreaking on the Jefferson casino would be held within 30 days — and that casino construction is expected to take 13 months.
Wild Rose estimates it will hire 275 employees, beginning in the next three to four months. The total annual payroll and benefits package is projected at $7 million.
Gary Kirke, Wild Rose Entertainment CEO, advocated the project for more than a year as the “economic opportunity of a lifetime” for Greene County.
“I’m very emotional, so happy for them,” Kirke said an interview, tears welling in his eyes, minutes after the vote. “It’s a great thing for Greene County. We’ve been excited for it for over a year.”
The 18,000-square-foot casino will contain about 525 slot machines and 14 table games. The entertainment resort will feature: an events center, sports bar, restaurant and a 71-room hotel developed by BriMark Builders.
“It’s going to be the best one for its size in the state of Iowa,” Kirke said of the full complex.
The more than 20 Greene County residents who made the three and a half hour drive to Burlington were left sitting on the edges of their seats as the 2-2 vote fell to the final commissioner.
“It gave me a headache,” quipped Katie Richardson, wife of Greene County Supervisor Guy Richardson, describing the proceedings as “overwhelming.”
Kate Neese, of Grand Junction, called Thursday’s vote “the beginning of something great.”
“I’m not really a crier,” she said, “but I was bawling.”
Retired teacher Peg Raney called Thursday’s vote “a vote for rural Iowa.”
“I still can’t believe it,” she said afterward.
Guy Richardson thanked Lamberti in particular, telling him there’s no such thing as perfect data, but there is, however, perfect logic.
“It isn’t fair for rural areas to go without,” Richardson said. “He’s going to give us that chance.”
Like all who made the drive from Greene County, Richardson has been a believer in the casino’s potential from the beginning.
“I still don’t think people appreciate the impact this is going to have on us,” he explained. “It’s going to have a tremendously positive impact.”
“That 75 percent,” he added, referencing last summer’s referendum, “is going to go to 95 percent.”
For Kim Rueter, on whose land Wild Rose will build its casino and entertainment complex, it means having to tear up 43 acres of beans — and he couldn’t be happier.
“I’m speechless,” Rueter said. “The people of this county really put their best foot forward here.”
Indeed, all present reflected on a process that overwhelmingly united not just Greene County, but Greene County with its regional partners.
“I worried that if it didn’t pass, what do you do with all the energy?” said John Muir, chairman of the Greene County Board of Supervisors.
“This is what we wanted,” Muir said. “I’m happy for the whole region.”
“Going forward, it’s going to be a plus for all of west central Iowa,” said Mike Mumma, a Jefferson attorney and a member of Grow Greene County.
Rick Morain, retired publisher of The Jefferson Herald and a longtime Greene County economic development advocate, appreciated the commission’s deliberation.
“The commission gave it every consideration we could hope for,” Morain said.
“Greene County,” he added, “will be the better for this vote today.”