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AGBRAI? Private Lottery? Vilsack vs. Grassley? And way too much about the Register

Is RAGBRAI about to become AGBRAI? Skinny hears the Des Moines Register, amidst financial problems, is considering selling the rights to the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. The rumor has surfaced before, but there seems to be more to it this time. The Register is ending the RAGBRAI campsite edition and the RAGBRAI preview section, and the layoff of Brian Duffy, who was a key person in all things RAGBRAI, leaves a big void. Speaking of Duffy, our often-reliable source says more than 700 people canceled their subscriptions after the long-time cartoonist was laid off the other day. More continue to drop each day, the source says. …

It’s hush-hush, but Skinny hears a group of folks are talking seriously to state officials about leasing the Iowa Lottery for 10 years or more. We don’t know many details, but it apparently involves an upfront payment to the financially pressed state of more than $200 million and then an annual payout in line with the tax that casinos pay, which currently is more than 20 percent of net revenues. Skinny scoffed when first told about it, but then a Skinny operative saw the group entering Chet Culver’s office not long ago, so it must be serious. Another operative (Skinny has operatives everywhere) says key legislators know of the plan and haven’t nixed it. Some big-hitters are said to be involved, and one guy said he wouldn’t be surprised if former Lottery honcho Ed Stanek was in the deal somewhere. And, of course, some influential Democrats are in the mix — which is why the group has gained access to Culver. The state’s lottery take is expected to be $53 million this year, down from $55.3 million last year, $59.3 million the year before and $79.6 million the year before that, so cashing in now might appeal to politicians searching ever more desperately for money as the revenue outlook continues to worsen. All this might be one reason Culver has dillied and dallied about naming a new lottery head to succeed Stanek, who left office more than a year ago. On the other hand, Culver might have just been dillying and dallying because he was home watching the kids, or something. …

What should be an easy and unanimous City Council vote on a management contract for Waveland and Grandview golf courses could be anything but that next week, Skinny hears. For the last eight years, the city has lost an average of $327,000 annually on the two publicly run courses while taking in $100,000 annually from the private company that runs Blank Golf Course, the city’s third public links. So — duh! — someone suggested that perhaps the strapped city should look at hiring private interests to manage Waveland and Grandview. A letter was sent to 17 potential bidders; seven asked for information, and four ended up bidding. The city set up a committee to rank each proposal, and by any and every measure the clear winner was C Corporation, which is Ned Chiodo’s company that runs Blank. It had the best business plan and guaranteed the city the biggest take — from $250,000 to $350,000 annually over the next six years. But politics is politics, and some west-side folks — Chiodo is one of those south-siders that some west-siders sneer at — are lobbying hard to give the contract to Vanscoy Management, which is run by the guy who has operated Waveland and Grandview at a loss for the city for several years. Bob Vanscoy ranked a distant second to Ned Chiodo under one evaluation and an even more distant third under the other, but that doesn’t deter the Vanscoy supporters. (The other two bidders are out-of-state companies, so they’re now out of it.) Chiodo got the Blank contract in July of 2006 on a 6-1 Council vote, but the Council has changed since then. At any rate, a Vanscoy supporter e-mailed Cityview and asked: “Is this all a set-up for the south-side political machine?” Then he asked that “someone who is not fearful of digging around” find the answers. So the fearless Skinny dug around and found the answers: Chiodo has a good plan; Vanscoy has good friends. Adding to the maneuvering: Lobbyist Dick Thornton is somewhere in the fray. Speaking of golf courses, a friend of Skinny’s saw some appraiser-looking guys roaming around Echo Valley recently. What’s that about? …

Back to {R}AGBRAI. Skinny was told that a prominent Des Moines businessperson and avid cyclist has interest in purchasing the bicycle ride. And he has the funds to do it. Look to Skinny for more on this in weeks ahead. …

Forget about the 2008 election. Let’s talk about 2010. The Daily Kos, a liberal blog, decided to stir things up by asking Research 2000 to poll and see how Tom Vilsack would do against Chuck Grassley in two years. After getting the results, it wrote: “Woah, what? Sen. Chuck Grassley is vulnerable? Granted, it’s against the state’s top Democrat — former Gov. Tom Vilsack, and there’s currently no indication that Vilsack is planning on running. But the [conventional wisdom] is that Grassley serves at will and can hold the seat for life if he so desires. That belief is challenged by these numbers.” The numbers: Grassley 48, Vilsack 44. Margin of error, plus or minus four points. Sample size, 600 likely voters. Poll date, Dec. 10-12. The Daily Kos notes that Grassley will be 77 on Election Day and asks, “Does he really want to raise millions and fight hard in a Blue-trending state only to sit in the deep minority?” And Skinny asks: What does Chet Culver think when he sees a big Washington Democratic blog refer to Vilsack as “the state’s top Democrat?” …

Skinny isn’t the only one who missed the news last month that Nelson Development plans to turn five floors of its Liberty Building into a Hyatt Place Hotel. While the building has what seem to be a booming health club and some offices, most of the condos remain unsold. So no one has to be bought out to put in the hotel, which would be downtown’s first Hyatt. It would have close to 100 rooms, we’re told. …

Why was Polk County’s Geri Huser thrown out as chair of the House Transportation Committee for the coming session? Skinny hears she pissed off Speaker Pat Murphy by refusing to support, with money, his plan to go after a Republican colleague whom she admires. As Skinny has noted, the affable and voluble Murphy can play hardball when he wants to. And he did with Huser. …

Still more on the Register. Publisher Laura Hollingsworth and editor Carolyn Washburn were scheduled to speak at a chamber luncheon in West Des Moines last week. Hollingsworth showed up. Washburn didn’t. Managing editor Randy Brubaker filled in. Several attendees told Skinny that Hollingsworth fielded only two questions, including one about the dominance of women and the number of female-based publications at the paper. In frustration, we hear, an attorney in the back of the room began clapping, signaling that the show was over. The Register duo awkwardly exited, stage left. …

The Iowa Newspaper Association represents newspaper across the state, but not this one. Member publications must charge for subscriptions, and we all know how that’s going. The association’s long-time director, Bill Monroe, is retiring. Skinny thinks that’s good. We are told that Monroe’s wife, Chris Mudge, may be his replacement. Skinny thinks that’s bad. The cronyism alone doesn’t smell right, but add in that this position pays a strong six-figure income, and the decision becomes very questionable, especially with publishers across the state struggling to find ways to cover payroll. “They didn’t even interview for the position. The F.O.B {Friends of Bill} club never ends,” a grumpy publisher tells Skinny. …

Is it true, as an old Register hand tells Skinny, that for a while cops guarded the home of a “high Register executive” who has received death threats? That’s frightening, if true. …

AGBRAI. It’s got a certain ring to it. CV

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