BURLINGTON, Iowa (AP) — The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission voted Thursday 3-2 to approve a $40 million casino in central Iowa, saying the boost to a rural area outweighed the negative impact on existing casinos.
Supporters of the casino proposed in Jefferson, a town of 4,200 about 60 miles northwest of Des Moines, burst into applause when commission chairman Jeff Lamberti cast the deciding vote in favor of its license application.
Lamberti said it was a "very, very difficult decision," noting concerns that the gambling market in Iowa is saturated and the casino would drain business from Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in suburban Des Moines. But he said the economic benefits for a rural area that has struggled was a deciding factor.
"I do have an interest in making sure that rural folks get part of this as well," he said during the meeting in Burlington.
It is the first license granted for a new casino in Iowa since 2010 and could be the last for several years. Lamberti told reporters that the commission was considering a moratorium on new licenses and would announce details at a meeting next month.
The approval comes two months after the commission voted 4-1 to reject a proposed $164 million casino development in Cedar Rapids, the state's second largest city. Commissioners said that casino would have taken too much business from existing casinos in Riverside, Waterloo and elsewhere.
Wild Rose Entertainment, which owns casinos in Emmetsburg and Clinton, will build the Jefferson development at the intersection of Highway 30 and Highway 4. It will include 525 slot machines, table games, an events center and a 71-room hotel. The company's president and chief operating officer, Tom Timmins, said construction will begin in the next 30 days, with a goal of opening the casino in August 2015.
Plans call for the casino to hire 275 employees, adding $7 million annually in payroll and benefits to the economy. Wild Rose will give 5 percent of its adjusted gross revenue to the license holder, Grow Greene County, which will use the estimated $1.5 million annually to support regional nonprofit groups and civic projects.
Two consultants hired by the commission recommended in February against the project, saying the state would be better served by investing in existing casinos than building new ones. The consultants said that 18 state-licensed casinos were enough to serve Iowa's slow-growing population of 3 million residents.
Commissioners cited those studies in rejecting the Cedar Rapids casino. But two who voted against Cedar Rapids — Lamberti and Rich Arnold — supported the Jefferson proposal.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett criticized the commission's inconsistency, pledging to continue to fight for a casino in his 135,000-population city.
"They used their own studies to speak sternly and strongly against a Cedar Rapids license. The same studies are valid today as they were a month ago," he said. "This just strengthens my resolve and the community's resolve that we got the short end of the stick on this."
Lamberti said the casino in Jefferson would only mainly hurt the Des Moines area, where the growing economy "will be just fine." Arnold said he saw only a minimal impact on existing casinos while a significant positive impact for the Jefferson area. Commissioner Dolores Mertz noted the overwhelming community backing for the plan, which included an unprecedented 75 percent favorable vote in a referendum.
"I just really think that rural Iowa is missing something and especially in north central Iowa. Everything that we have goes toward the population centers, and that's understandable," Mertz said. "But sometimes, can't rural Iowa have a little piece of the action? I think so."
Commissioners Carl Heinrich and Kris Kramer voted against the license. Heinrich said he saw "no significant advantage" to the state, given the negative impact it would have on Prairie Meadows and the small population that would be served. Kramer said there were no longer any underserved gambling markets in Iowa.
Prairie Meadows, which aggressively lobbied against the plan, declined comment after the vote.