Residents of Greene County voted overwhelmingly yesterday to approve a casino proposed for the county seat town of Jefferson. Full unofficial results (pdf) indicate that nearly 57 percent of registered voters cast ballots, which is a phenomenal turnout for a summer election. "Yes" defeated "no" by 2,905 votes to 964 (75 percent to 25 percent). The campaign in Greene County paralleled other Iowa battles over casino proposals. Local political leaders touted the economic development potential. Detractors, particularly in the faith community, warned of hidden social costs associated with gambling.
According to local resident and casino advocate Chuck Offenburger, the case for the gambling referendum rested largely on "the positive impact a similar casino has had in Emmetsburg and Palo Alto County" in northwest Iowa. Wild Rose Entertainment of Des Moines, which operates the Emmetsburg casino, spent about ten times as much money during the referendum campaign as did the "No Casino Greene County" group.
Wild Rose Entertainment was also the corporate entity backing the Norwalk casino project that Warren County residents voted down in May. The "casino as economic development" message wasn't compelling in rapidly growing Warren County. But the Greene County vote took place against a backdrop of 10 percent population loss in the past decade. As Offenburger wrote recently, "Let's be honest here, yes, there are a few problems that might come with a casino development and with community growth. But we already know there are a whole lot of problems that definitely come with decline."
I am skeptical that the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission will approve a casino for Jefferson, given that Greene County is neither close to Iowa's border with another state nor part of a large metro area lacking a casino (as is the case for Linn County, where voters approved a gambling referendum in March). A study is underway to determine how a new casino in Cedar Rapids, the Des Moines area, or Greene County might affect the 18 existing casinos with state licenses.