A Polk County insider earns his rural boots6/18/2014
Tears rolled for many reasons as the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission approved a gambling license for Greene County in a suspense-filled session at the Catfish Bend Casino in Burlington.
It brought culmination to more than a year of advocacy for what regional economic-development leaders believe will be a game-changer for rural life in west-central Iowa.
The vote meant relief or closure with regard to the grueling process for all involved, from the commissioners who are flooded with information and lobbied as if they were each a Senate Appropriations chairman to the community leaders who must be at their Sunday Best on Mondays and Wednesdays, less someone think less of their towns and regions during the evaluation of merit for a 19th state-regulated casino.
But there was more behind the swelled, wet eyes of Greene County supporters in the moments after the final sign-off on the license.
Rural Iowans gathered for the commission meeting heard extraordinary eloquence from a Polk County-rooted attorney, a Des Moines insider, for our part of the state.
“We have lots of advantages in Polk County, and I think we have lots of advantages that are going to come in the future,” Jeff Lamberti, the chairman of the commission, said. “We’ve got significant population growth amongst all of our suburbs, and we’ve got some good things in the works that are pretty historic by Iowa standards, and quite frankly, we have advantages that a lot of other parts of the state don’t have.”
Lamberti added, “Being from Polk County, I do have an interest in making sure that the rural folks get part of this as well. So that does have an impact on my decision.”
Simply put, Lamberti saw rural Iowa not just for what it is, but what it can be. His was the voice of the integrated Iowa, with rural and urban forces in concert.
Lamberti said an expectation for regional development in Greene County and its neighbors weighed heavily in his tie-breaking vote Thursday to approve a gaming license for a Jefferson casino-and-entertainment complex.
With the rest of the commission split 2-2, Lamberti provided a favorable nod to the $40 million complex West Des Moines-based Wild Rose Entertainment expects to open on the north side of Jefferson by August 2015.
Lamberti’s fellow commissioner, the folksy populist former lawmaker Delores Mertz of Algona, seemed to predict — or possibly issue a final challenge to Lamberti — before his defining comments.
“Rural Iowa is so different than urban and sometimes urban people can’t see that,” Mertz said. “But there are some good ones that can see that.”
Yes, Lamberti appears very much a corporate cat, someone who can toss a knowing look at the hanging portraits of executives past in board rooms across downtown Des Moines — and maybe even get a wink back from the sage faces on the canvasses. But in Greene County, regardless of the cut of Lamberti’s suits, the polished angles of his shoes, he’ll forevermore be embraced as a boots-and-blue jeans kinda guy. He’s earned his rural boots.
Lamberti, a former Republican state lawmaker, referenced a map of Iowa’s existing 18 state-regulated casinos revealing a large swath of west-central Iowa not served by a legal gaming operation.
“Some of them referred to it as the doughnut hole,” Lamberti said. “It’s not just a county. It’s the region. So that had an impact.”
Representatives from Carroll, Calhoun, Guthrie, Boone, Dallas and Adair counties spoke at public hearings in support of the Jefferson casino.
In many respects, Jefferson was up against the state’s two biggest cities — powerful gaming forces from Prairie Meadows in Altoona, just east of Des Moines, and in a sense, Cedar Rapids itself, as influential interests connected to the state’s second most populous city sought a license for a casino there. The swirl of forces easily could have sent Greene County flying like Dorothy back to Kansas, out of the running.
But a balanced, reasoned approach, one set by Lamberti, didn’t let that happen. And our state is better for it.
In an interview with Political Mercury and independent journalist Chuck Offenburger, Lamberti said he sees Wild Rose serving as an economic catalyst for a region with the potential for a commercial-and-entertainment anchoring effect similar to the one Dubuque experienced with the Diamond Jo casino and the boom of associated riverfront development in that eastern Iowa city over the past two decades.
“We all know where Dubuque was in the ’80s, and look where Dubuque is today,” Lamberti said. “Look at downtown Davenport. Those are bigger areas, but relative to the size, I think the impact can be the same.”
Grow Greene County Gaming Corporation, the nonprofit associated with Wild Rose, will distribute 5 percent of the casino’s adjusted gross receipts to charitable and public-works projects. Of the estimated $1.5 million annually flowing through the nonprofit, 20 percent will go to endeavors in Greene’s neighboring counties of Boone, Calhoun, Carroll, Dallas, Guthrie and Webster.
“You’ll see that economic impact,” Lamberti said. “You’ll see it showing up in ways that there will be funds available to do community projects that maybe weren’t there before, or at least on an accelerated pace. There’s certainly going to be jobs created.”
Wild Rose projects hiring 275 employees with an annual payroll-and-benefits package of $7 million.
“I do see an economic benefit of the casino in Greene County,” Lamberti said.
In his public remarks before the vote, Lamberti said the commission would make a public statement in July about the future of legalized gambling in Iowa and the prospect for other casinos.
“There’s no magic guidelines that tell us when we should issue a license and when we should deny,” Lamberti said. “And that makes it very difficult on us as individual commissioners.” CV
Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview. He and his family also own the newspaper in Jefferson and Greene County.