There’s an unusual question on the Nov. 2 local election ballot.
In addition to the school board and city council elections, which in Iowa are held every four years, Greene County voters will decide the future of the Wild Rose Casino in Jefferson.
It’s an unusual question for several reasons. For one, Iowa is unique among America’s states in that it requires a majority of a county’s voters to approve gaming there before a casino can be built. For another, a one-time vote isn’t enough: those voters are asked the same question a second time eight years later. And finally, a state-regulated casino (like the 19 in Iowa counties) must share some of its gaming revenue with local governments and civic groups for worthwhile projects. That requirement is not standard procedure in most states.
Greene County’s initial referendum on casino gaming took place in 2013. It resulted in a 75.1 percent “yes” vote — 3 to 1 in favor. Every precinct in the county said “yes” by about that margin.
Now it’s eight years later, and in order for Wild Rose Jefferson to continue, another “yes” vote is necessary.
That’s another reason the ballot question is unusual. Casino gaming is the only business in Iowa that twice requires local voter approval in order to operate.
The Iowa gaming law assures that no casino operates where local citizens don’t want it. It’s a reasonable requirement. In the past few decades, while most local referendums have won approval, voters of a few counties have rejected gaming.
Had that happened in Greene County’s 2013 referendum, we would have missed out on the nearly $9 million provided by Wild Rose revenues to local schools, towns and non-profit groups since then. The county itself, every one of its towns, both school districts, and dozens of organizations have benefited.
The casino has paid more than $3 million in property taxes during that time. And Greene County and the city of Jefferson also each receive 0.5 percent of the casino’s gaming revenue annually, amounting to more than $800,000 each since the casino opened in 2015.
If the second referendum is a “yes,” those funds will continue. Iowa law requires no additional referendums in subsequent years. The second vote is final.
The casino’s local revenue distribution isn’t its only benefit.
Under the agreement between Wild Rose and Grow Greene County Gaming Corporation (the local non-profit that holds the local gaming license), 18 percent of the distributed revenues go to the community foundations of the six counties that border Greene County. That amounts to about $40,000 a year to each of the six. And Grow Greene County funds the Greene County Community Foundation as well, providing it at least as much money as it previously received from the state.
In addition, of course, there’s the 70-plus-bed Cobblestone Hotel attached to the casino, plus the casino’s restaurant, plus the large entertainment and event center where nationally-known musical groups perform and where meetings, weddings and conventions are hosted.
From the beginning, the existence of a casino in Greene County has been locally driven. Wild Rose President Tom Timmons rightly notes that local residents made the initial contact with that corporation at its West Des Moines headquarters, organized the drive for the 2013 county referendum, and held town meetings at each municipality in the county to answer citizens’ questions.
Unlike many Iowa casino corporations, Wild Rose is strictly homegrown with Iowa ownership and leadership. In addition to the revenue distribution stipulated by its agreement with Grow Greene County (5 percent, well above the minimum 3 percent required by state law), Wild Rose corporate headquarters has gifted hundreds of thousands of dollars to Greene County projects, including the Greene County Medical Center renovation and the new Greene County Early Learning Center building now under construction.
No county in Iowa where a state-regulated casino has been built has ever voted “no” on its second referendum eight years after its first one. Greene County voters can continue that record by voting “yes” on November 2.