Gary Kirke, CEO, Wild Rose Entertainment
Gary Kirke, CEO, Wild Rose Entertainment
June 26, 2013

West Des Moines

Wild Rose Entertainment is, in the parlance of its business, "all in" with plans to develop a casino complex in Jefferson, said company CEO Gary Kirke.

If Greene County voters are with them, Wild Rose intends to do in Jefferson what it did in Emmetsburg in May of 2006: open a casino and play a pivotal role in luring other business and boosting charitable coffers in the region, Kirke said.

But should Greene Countians balk at the proposal for gaming Aug. 6, Wild Rose is hardly the sad sack gambler with no change jingling in pockets. The casino operator will pursue opportunities in other counties in west-central Iowa - probably in Carroll.

"Yes, we would like to talk to Carroll about it," Kirke said.

Adair County is interested in speaking with Wild Rose about potential for a casino development as well, Kirke, 70, said in a 45-minute interview with The Carroll Daily Times Herald and Jefferson Bee & Herald in Wild Rose's West Des Moines offices Tuesday afternoon.

Kirke, the former chairman of Kirke-Van Orsdel Inc., an insurance powerhouse he later sold, said he has no doubt there will be a casino developed in west-central Iowa. The question is not "if," but "where and when."

"Of course, it's inevitable," Kirke said. "There's no question."

Iowa law allows a county to vote once every eight years on whether casino gaming can be introduced.

"You get one bite at the apple - then you forever hold your peace," said Wild Rose vice president of operations Tom Timmons.

A recent Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission map of Iowa's state-sanctioned gaming facilities, all 18 of them, shows them largely concentrated on the borders to pull players from South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin into the Hawkeye State.

But there's something else that meets the eye straight away with this flagging of the gambling parlors and boats and tracks - a giant open space. It's what casino-industry types, academics and economists, would call "under-served territory" in west-central Iowa. The closest casino to Jefferson - Prairie Meadows in Altoona, east of Des Moines - is about 75 miles. Wild Rose Casino & Resort in Emmetsburg, one of two Kirke operates in Iowa (the other is in Clinton), is 90 miles from Jefferson.

So Jefferson makes sense for a casino, based on a pure service-territory analysis, Wild Rose says. But so do many other cities - including Carroll. So why did Wild Rose select Jefferson for planned casino/entertainment venue?

Simple. The leaders of Greene County asked first and quickly lined up support with the Greene County Development Corp., Greene County Board of Supervisors and Jefferson City Council, Kirke said.

Kirke said Greene County business and economic-development leaders contacted Wild Rose about the potential of a casino in Jefferson.

"There are very few places left in the state like Larchwood and Worth County and Riverside," Kirke said. "These guys are always way ahead of us in finding these little places to put a casino that doesn't bother anybody else (other casinos), and they're tremendous spots."

Kirke said the Greene County outreach piqued the interest of Wild Rose.

"We looked at the map and said, 'Look at that. That's really an area left in Iowa that really looks like an area that could do a lot of good,'" Kirke said. "We like the spot, and we like the idea that it really wouldn't cannibalize (other Iowa casinos) - and you hear that word all the time in our business."

Wild Rose's bottom line: Greene County is a prime location in an under-served market for legalized gambling in Iowa. And key leaders courted Wild Rose.

"Every place we've gone, we've been invited in," Kirke said. "You've got to be supported by the locals. It has to come from within. It can't come from a Wild Rose or any other casino going in and saying, 'This is what we're going to do here.'"

Timmons said the company is interested in connecting with its host communities.

"We try to take on the local lay of the land," Timmons said. "We don't come and try to be the 800-pound gorilla. We want to make something that is very nice, safe, and part of the culture of our state."

Kirke said Wild Rose will serve as a major boost to the economy of Greene County.

"It's a tremendous opportunity for them," Kirke said. "It's the economic opportunity of the century. If they pass a referendum and get a casino, it will be one of the greatest economic developments they've ever done in the history of their county."

Kirke said Wild Rose's initial conversations with Greene County leaders revealed what he characterized as "overwhelming support." Wild Rose followed up with polling showing a strong likelihood of a referendum passing as well, he said.

"We're just about six weeks away from answering your question," Kirke said. "Our polling looks good. We feel very positive about it."

He said the polling is far better than in Warren County where voters turned back a Wild Rose-affiliated proposal to legalize gaming with 60 percent of voters casting ballots in opposition.

"The polling in Warren County was terrible against us," Kirke said. "They didn't want us to go forward with it. We had some friends down there, and a lot of people begged us to do it anyway. We never really had a chance from Day 1 down there. It would have taken a miracle to win that."

Kirke said when a Wild Rose casino/entertainment complex is developed in Jefferson it will bring potential for more restaurants, more businesses.

"I can only tell you that it spurs development," Kirke said. "You can go out to Prairie Meadows (in Altoona) and look at the restaurants and businesses that are opening up out there. Casino resorts bring people, and when people come, businesses see potential customers."

Greene County can expect a casino operation similar to the one in Emmetsburg, Kirke said. That $20.6 million facility, with gaming floor, hotel and associated restaurant and convention center, employs 265 people, according to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.

One difference will be in basic structure. Emmetsburg's casino is two levels, and the one planned in Jefferson will be on one - with the exception of the hotel. The single- level structure will make deliveries and basic services easier to manage, Timmons said.

"It will be a state-of-the-art facility," Kirke said.

Then there is the charitable and community-development element. Since 2006, Wild Rose has contributed more than $7 million in Palo Alto County to organizations ranging from the Emmetsburg Volunteer Fire Department to the Ruthven American Legion Auxiliary to the West Bend Mallard Community School District.

Wild Rose plans to give 4.1 percent of its adjusted gross revenue in Jefferson to the Greene County-based non-profit that actually will hold the casino license. That's higher than the 3 percent required by state law.

"Go and ask any city that has a casino if they'd give it up and they'll fight to their death to keep them," Kirke said. "They love them. They've been wonderful to their communities."

Timmons said casinos in Iowa have a raft of safeguards to prevent problem gambling and other social ills. Casinos are fined if patrons are over-served alcohol and there are no lines of credit in casinos as in Las Vegas, for example.

"You gotta come with cash to a casino in Iowa, which really just makes a world of difference," Kirke said.

And the clientele isn't of the trouble-making demographic in terms of the local police blotter, Wild Rose says. Kirke said the average age of a casino patron in Emmetsburg is 74.

"It's not an addiction, it's entertainment," Kirke said. "Are there people addicted by gaming? Sure there are. In all my life, and with all my friends, I remember very few cases if any divorces or suicides with addicted gamblers. But I have had a tremendous amount of friends and relatives with drinking problems. I've seen drinking as more of the problem."

And drinking is legal. At some point, Kirke said, individual responsibility has to prevail in a free society.