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Political Mercury

Kirke calls casino ‘opportunity of the century’ for Greene County

7/10/2013

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, 70, said in a 45-minute interview in Wild Rose’s West Des Moines offices.

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.

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 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 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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

burns doug 12-10-25“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. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.

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