Our columnist’s speech asking state commission to allow a casino here

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

JEFFERSON, Iowa, June 10, 2014 — On the morning of May 29, just before the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission was going to hold an afternoon public hearing on a proposal to approve a license for a casino to be built and operate here, about 200 proponents gathered at a reception for the commissioners.  I was asked to speak about why I hope the commission will vote in favor when they give final consideration to the proposal. That comes at their meeting this Thursday, June 12, in Burlington.  Here is the appeal I made to them.

Commissioners Jeff Lamberti, Kristine Kramer, Richard Arnold, Dolores Mertz and Carl Heinrich…

…also to President Tom Timmons of Wild Rose Entertainment, Mayor Craig Berry, Board of Supervisors Chairperson John Muir, President Norm Fandel and others with Grow Greene County Gaming Corporation…

…and everybody else…

I especially want to welcome the Commissioners and staff from the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission to Greene County and our county seat town of Jefferson.

This has been my hometown for 10 years now.  I’ve gotten involved in a lot of things – more than I ever intended – including the Greene County Historical Society, and that’s helped me realize that this is a mighty big day here, one of the most important in our history.  And as you are about to experience, it’s going to be as fun as it is interesting and informative.  So enjoy yourselves while you’re here, but don’t forget – you’ve got some work to do here, too!

In 2004, after I’d spent 26 years covering Iowa for the Des Moines Register and then five years in Storm Lake while Carla and I taught at Buena Vista U and other Iowa colleges, we bought “the old Travis place” a mile outside Cooper, eight miles south of here.  It was a 103-year-old farmhouse where no one had lived for eight years – except a raccoon – along with a century-old barn, a rickety garage, a couple sheds and three acres.  All for $35,000, which tells you a lot.  Governor Tom Vilsack read about it and said, “I’ve seen you do a lot of crazy stuff, man, but this tops it all.”  Carla and I picked this place because we are bicycle riders, and it’s right along the Raccoon River Valley Trail, an 89-mile paved trail that’s one of the longest and best in America.  We didn’t come here to get involved, to try to save Greene County, or even to try to save Cooper. We just wanted to ride our damned bicycles.

But three weeks after we moved in, Tom Polking and Rick Morain of the Greene County Development Corporation called and asked us to lunch.  They said they knew Carla and I had seen a lot of successful stuff happen across the state, and they wondered if we’d look at a few projects here – “things that are all kind of neat but seem like they could be better” was how Tom Polking put it.  They wanted some ideas.  Some perspective.  Well, it seems like  ever since that long-ago lunch conversation at the Peony Restaurant, we’ve been involved from our toenails to our scalps

What the Offenburgers discovered here is what we think lots of other people are going to discover in the years just ahead – that it’s great being a part of a region like Greene County and a half-dozen of our neighbor counties in west central Iowa, where we are launching a major rebuilding effort.  And Commissioners, we need you as key partners in this effort.

O.K., now some perspective.  Some history.

I’ve become friends with a fellow named Kim Rueter during the past year as the proposal has been developing for a Wild Rose casino, conference center and entertainment complex.  You all know he’s played a key role in this – like offering to sell land that his family has available to become the site of the new facilities.  It’s at a place that would not only be good for Greene County, but also for this whole region and indeed for this whole state.  Here in Iowa, with 18 state-sanctioned casinos and three operated by Native American tribes, here was a spot that was like a donut hole – an underserved area that we don’t believe would have any significant “cannibalization” effect on the other casinos in the state.

So, more perspective.  Kim Rueter told me over coffee recently that, when you think about it, we here in this place wouldn’t have needed a casino or any other kind of tourism attraction like this 100 years ago.  The young Greene County then was robust – with a population approaching 20,000.  We had a transcontinental railroad and the first transcontinental highway, both coming right through the heart of Jefferson and this county.  People flocked here for transportation, shipping, shopping and entertainment.  We had 18 gas stations from east to west in Jefferson and a half-dozen hotels and motels.

But then they moved the highway out north to by-pass Jefferson and most other towns it had gone through.  Then passenger transportation started moving off the trains and into motor vehicles using those faster highways.  Then came the Interstate highways, and the traffic moved even farther away, taking so much freight off the railroads that they suffered, too.

Meanwhile our bedrock industry of agriculture was getting ever-bigger, ever more efficient, using bigger equipment – and fewer people.

Through it all, we began losing gas stations, motels, restaurants, banks, schools – and people.

So, in Greene County, we know “cannibalization.”  We’ve lived it.  So have places like New Hampton, Russell, Ottosen and so many others in rural Iowa.

Here in Greene County, you might say that in the past 10 years, we hit bottom.  Our county population went below 10,000 for the first time in 120 years.  A whole lot of scared, determined people here decided it was high time to make a stand against cannibalization.  We’ve opted to Grow Greene County, and we by God think we’re going to win on this.  But we do need your help.

Let me dip you one more time into some perspective, some history.

In 1972, I joined the staff of the Des Moines Register, and right from the start, I was roaming around Iowa, watching what was going on, writing stories about the most interesting events and people of our time.  That same year, the people of Iowa voted to repeal the Constitutional ban on gambling in this state.  Now, I didn’t really have anything to do with that, except that I was one of a whole lot of young Iowans who felt some new excitement about what might be happening in our home state.

We went from no gambling at all, to bingo and raffles, from low-stakes to higher-stakes, to dog tracks and horse tracks, to casino boats and then land-based casinos – and, wow!

I stood on the deserted Mississippi River bank in Dubuque, with only a few abandoned factory buildings behind us, and listened to Mayor Terry Duggan and community activist Teri Goodmann lay out a vision for what that city wanted to do if they got the very first grant from a new gaming-financed state program called “Vision Iowa.”  Downtown Davenport suddenly seemed to come back from the dead.  Dave Bernstein talked me into coming up to Sioux City to “see what we’re going to do with this old theater, the Orpheum, which is kind of a wreck right now.”  And in Carl Heinrich’s Council Bluffs, OMG, as the kids say today.  Even the Omaha World Herald acknowledged it: “Council Bluffs climbed out of Omaha’s shadow…,” the newspaper wrote.

Late last July, when we were getting ready to vote on this casino proposal in Greene County, I had a long conversation with Tom Hanafan, whom I’d written about many times in his 26 years as mayor of Council Bluffs.  He reviewed a lot of what has happened there after three casinos were developed there.  Since 1990, the city’s population grew by 15 percent. There has been an explosion of housing development, retail business growth, new shopping centers, huge new industrial plants and more.  I wrote that Council Bluffs “stands as a shining example of the old maxim that growth is contagious, if you can somehow just get it started.”

It’s a story that, actually, you can find happening in 18 other places around Iowa, too.

If you look at all the towns and cities that have state-regulated casinos, in almost every case you can see vibrancy, economic growth, educational innovations, enhancements in arts & culture, expanded entertainment opportunities, infrastructure improvements, growing tax bases, reduced tax askings, and even population growth.

Then look at non-casino towns across Iowa and – unless they’re college towns – you see very little progress.

Over my career, I’ve watched the gaming industry – with its employment, its tax payments, its charitable contributions, its hospitality, its entertainment, its clean criminal record and its courage and vision.  The gaming industry has used all of that in taking a leading role in rebuilding Iowa, the Iowa that was clobbered by the Farm Crisis, by floods, by national economic downturns.  I’ve watched the gaming industry become not only one of the most legitimate businesses in Iowa, but one of the most successful, too.

Now, in Greene County, we know full well what happens if you live in decline, and we’ve had enough of it.  We want to grow.

Our six home-grown manufacturing plants in Greene County are all doing well – in fact, they are all wanting to hire.  We are building a new Hy-Vee Food Store, doing a huge overhaul and expansion of the Greene County Medical Center, turning our school system into a model of 21st century educational opportunity.  When Governor Terry Branstad said he wanted to launch “Home Base Iowa” and recruit military veterans to come start their civilian careers right here in Iowa, we said “Forward march!” And “bring it on!” And we became the first Home Base Iowa-certified county in the state.

But as we take these other big steps toward growth, we also are in desperate need of hotel rooms, conference facilities, entertainment – the tourism attraction that Wild Rose Entertainment proposes to build here.

It’s the linchpin for all that’s happening here.  It’s the keystone.  We need you!

That’s why 75.1 percent of us voted last August in favor of this project.

That’s why we negotiated with Wild Rose Entertainment to increase their planned charitable contributions from the casino they would operate here, and to share those with six neighbor counties that will not only help provide casino customers, but also casino employees.  When has there ever been such regional cooperation in a casino development?

Another bit of perspective my career has given me, is that I’ve known the key executives in Wild Rose Entertainment for 30 years or more – and have watched them up close and personal on several other business initiatives they’ve been involved in.  I’ll tell anybody that Wild Rose’s Chairman & Founder Gary Kirke is one of the best and most successful business leaders in Iowa history.  But what really makes the company is something else, something that some might be smaller than major success and glitzy casinos.

“What we offer that others don’t have,” Tom Timmons told me last summer in an interview, “is that we’re Iowa. Almost all of us involved in the company have grown up in Iowa, made careers here, invested here, still live and work here.  We know that to be successful in Iowa, you have to look people in the eye, smile and be friendly.  That’s just us.  It comes natural to us.  It’s amazing to us how many other casinos and other businesses other places can’t offer that.”

Now, let’s go have some fun.  Thank you all for giving us a chance.

You can write the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment by using the handy form below here.

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