July 18, 2013

Preachers in Greene County have a luxury.

They probably don't have to worry much about job security.

According to the U.S. Census, 43.3 percent of Greene County's residents are 50 years of age or older.

That means no shortage of funerals for the pastors.

The county's non-sermonizing population, however, can't afford to look at economic development through the pious lenses used by some of Greene County's preachers who oppose a casino-and-entertainment complex based on a 19th-century argument about sinning and morals - and a 1980 view of Iowa.

Simply put, the economic-development potential and job creation opportunities associated with the proposed casino in Jefferson are far too promising to let the project slip away.

A Greene County casino would generate more than 250 jobs with an annual payroll of between $6 million and $7 million. The casino is open 24 hours, seven days a week, affording opportunities for second jobs for many in Greene County looking to earn money to pay off debt or save for college or buy a better home or enjoy a more fulfilling retirement.

What's more, Wild Rose Entertainment officials say employees are defined as full-time with 32 hours a week, at which point they are eligible for heath-care coverage - plans that include dental and vision and 401(k)s.

Over a decade, more than $20 million will flow directly from the casino to Greene County and its communities and non-profit organizations through local taxes and mandated charitable contributions.

Greene County Supervisor Guy Richardson, a Jefferson Republican, is spot-on with this assessment: If Greene County doesn't go with the casino, another west-central Iowa county will.

Wild Rose, the West Des Moines-based gaming operator that's inked a local arrangement, tells us about 70 percent of its Emmetsburg casino customers come from between 15 miles and 60 miles outside of the Palo Alto County seat. A simple review of the map of Iowa, an examination of the 60-mile radius around Jefferson, provides every logical reason to believe the pull factor could be even higher in Greene County, as Ames and Carroll and Perry and Boone and the western suburbs of Des Moines are within a Jefferson casino's reach.

Greene Countians could really boil the casino gaming vote down to one question Aug. 6: Do you want to take other people's money, from Carroll or Waukee, through what amounts to an entertainment tax, and use it to build infrastructure in Jefferson and Dana and Grand Junction and Paton and Churdan and Scranton and Rippey, or do you want to reverse that equation?

Vote "no" on the Greene casino and you'll very likely get a chance to see up-close and personal if you were right or foolish as the casino goes to Carroll or another area city.

The referendum is also at its core about the very American principle of individual responsibility.

Should people have the freedom to decide how to spend their discretionary dollars?

And more important, should they be able to decide where to spend the money?

Those opposed to gambling because it's a "vice" are arriving more than a little late to the debate. Thirty years ago, Gov. Terry Branstad signed the Pari-Mutuel Wagering Act, opening the state to betting on dogs and the horses.

Then, six years later, Iowa legislators passed a bill allowing excursion gaming vessels. Now we have legalized land-based casinos.

Today, Sioux City, Emmetsburg, Riverside, Council Bluffs, Altoona, Osceola, Marquette, Dubuque, Clinton, Bettendorf, Davenport, Waterloo, Northwood, Larchwood and Burlington all profit from gambling. So do smaller towns in those cities' orbits as they are represented on state-mandated, casino-fed, non-profit organizations that actually hold the gaming licenses.

Iowa sat down at the gaming table a long time ago. The hands have largely been played. Now it's just a matter of how to split the jackpot, and Greene County has a rare and real chance to be in a select group of counties that can sweep a generous pile of chips for themselves. We'll probably see just two more casinos developed in Iowa, maybe three.

And, really, what's the downside to a casino?

If all the arguments about social ills of legalized Hawkeye State gambling had a whiff of merit, if in fact the roads to the casinos were lined with pawn shops and nearby jail cells were full, and strippers were spinning from stage poles until dawn and the police were constantly on the run with domestic-abuse calls stemming from household disputes over gambling, wouldn't the boats be more apt to suffer the same fate as the Lusitania, rather than getting "Love Boat" treatment at the polls?

Counties with casinos keep them - by huge margins in follow-up referendums (which, remember, Greene County would get in the event of buyers' remorse).

The average age of a patron in Emmetsburg's Wild Rose casino is 74, and penny slots are the most popular machines. So think bingo, not "Boardwalk Empire," when it comes to the Jefferson plan. You're more likely to run into an 84-year-old Phyllis at the Jefferson casino than a fast-jawed Joe Pesci type.

In considering gambling the way Wild Rose proposes to introduce it into Greene County, we need to move beyond images of the Old West saloons with wide-open dice games and crooked card dealers.

Today's casinos are highly regulated, and the vast majority of gamblers are recreational.

For most people, gambling is a vice along the lines of drinking two or three beers, or splurging on a ribeye steak dinner and a night at the movies.

What's more, the people who are compulsive enough to gamble too much would probably find other ways (drugs, booze, sex, Internet gambling, the stock market, etc.) to screw up their lives if a casino isn't down the road from their homes.

In the end, I'm with many of the opponents of casino gambling in one sense: It is disappointing that Iowa is relying on gambling for economic development. We could have been more creative. We didn't have to make the industry so central in our economy. But we did.

The gaming industry is, thanks to our five-term governor, and a collection of decisions made over three decades, a $1 billion-a-year venture in Iowa. That's just the way of things in Iowa these days.

When is another development opportunity of this scale going to come along again for the Greene County area?

Over the last 52 years Greene County has lost 36 percent of its population, going from 14,379 in 1960 to an estimated 9,153 in 2012, according to the U.S. Census.

Where have all the people been with alternative ideas that would bring casino-level growth and vitality, indeed sustainability, to Greene County?

Greene County lost a whopping 10 percent of its population from 2000 to 2010. Those are hard numbers to swallow. A casino is the best card - and really the only one on the table - for a desperately needed demographic turnaround.

A Greene County casino is, in the words of Wild Rose founder and CEO Gary Kirke, the "economic opportunity of a lifetime" for Greene County. Yes, Kirke has a pitch man's panache.

But he's Iowa straight with us on this score.