Then-Greene County supervisor Guy Richardson (right) shakes hands with Delores Mertz from the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission following its 3-2 vote in 2014 to grant Wild Rose Entertainment and Grow Greene County a license to build a $40 million casino in Jefferson. Mertz voted in favor of giving the license for the casino. HERALD FILE PHOTOSA fan snaps a photo of Little River Band during the band’s 2017 concert at Wild Rose Casino in Jefferson. The classic soft-rock group, originally from Australia, sold more than 30 million albums thanks to such late ’70s hits as “Reminiscing” and “Lonesome Loser.”Then-VFW Commander Don Ihnken (left) lays eyes on a surprise donation in 2017 from Grow Greene County Gaming Corp. board members for $5,000 to use as needed. Grow Greene’s money, earmarked for charitable causes, comes from gaming revenue at Wild Rose Jefferson.Then-Gov. Terry Branstad does his best not to be upstaged by a showgirl outside Wild Rose Jefferson in 2015 during a three-day grand opening celebration for the $40 million casino-events center. HERALD FILE PHOTOSUnder Iowa law, a county that passed a referendum allowing casino gaming must approve a one-time follow-up vote eight calendar years later for legalized gambling to continue.

‘HIGH STAKES’

Vote on future of Wild Rose set for Nov. 2 as state law requires second gaming referendum

By DOUGLAS BURNS

d.burns@carrollspaper.com

Tom Timmons is a familiar face in Greene County.

The president and chief operating officer of Wild Rose Casino & Resort attended town halls and other events tied to the Aug. 6, 2013, referendum on gaming in the county. He’s been a consistently present ally for economic development ever since.

As the $40 million casino, which has pumped millions of dollars into the local economy, faces a second state-mandated referendum to operate in the county Nov. 2, Timmons’ message is straightforward: Wild Rose has done what it said it would.

“I think the No. 1 thing, the thing that pops into my mind, is I went to every town hall meeting back in 2013,” Timmons said. “I remember taking the questions. I remember speaking at each one of them. I look back at eight years. We had the facility going in July of 2015. I look back at these six years of operation and I don’t think there is one thing that we told that we haven’t done. That’s what I’m probably most proud of. We went and told them what we were going to mean to the community, what we were trying to do, and as far casino itself, I think it has done everything we set out to do.”

The bottom line is the casino has delivered hundreds of jobs, millions in tax and nonprofit revenues, while catalyzing economic development. Timmons expects more development around the casino in coming years.

Greene County voters Nov. 2 will decide whether Timmons is right and Wild Rose deserves continued operations in the county. 

According to Iowa law, a county that passed a referendum allowing casino gaming must approve a one-time follow-up vote eight calendar years later for legalized gambling to continue.

The 2013 referendum on gaming in Greene County passed with 75.1 percent of the vote (2,907 out of 3,871 voters). It’s the highest percentage vote in the history of Iowa for first-time gaming referendums in counties.

“I had so many people come to the counter to vote who had never voted before,” said Greene County Auditor Jane Heun. “That’s what they told us.”

There are 19 state-regulated casinos in Iowa. No second vote — like the gaming referendum Nov. 2 in Greene County — has ever failed in Iowa, said Brian Ohorilko, administrator of the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission. 

Should Greene County vote down gaming in November, the casino would have one year to close its doors for gaming operations, and could not call for another vote until 2029. 

The Cobblestone hotel complex and music venues could legally remain, but without the slot machines, it’s hard to see either one staying open, several sources said.

“This is a big referendum, period,” Ohorilko said.

Grow Greene County Gaming Corp., the local nonprofit corporation that holds the state gaming license for Wild Rose Casino & Resort in Jefferson, distributed more than $1 million worth of grants at its fifth-annual awards night last April. In just days the nonprofit will distribute funds for 2021.

Norm Fandel, president of Grow Greene County, said the nonprofit already has exceeded $5 million in allocations in Greene and surrounding counties.

Under agreement with Wild Rose Entertainment Inc., Grow Greene receives 5 percent of the local casino’s adjusted gross gaming revenues to distribute to nonprofit, governmental and charitable organizations. Of that total, 4.1 percent goes to projects in Greene County and 0.9 percent is shared equally by the community foundations in the six counties contiguous to Greene County.

One big highlight: the ongoing donation of $4.5 million to the Greene County High School and co-located Iowa Central Community College Greene County Career Academy, which will be staged over 13 to 20 years through local bank financing.

“That was one of our ‘wow’ projects,” Fandel said.

A “no” vote would throw the financing and future of the school district and a host of other public and private programs and projects into an unimaginable, if not irreparable, disarray.

“It would be devastating, absolutely,” Fandel said. “There would be a domino effect of a financial hit that would devastate Greene County.”

For this reason, the casino and local leaders are intent on making sure turnout and support are strong in November.

“I think our actions should speak fairly well, but there again, we are not going to take anything for granted,” Timmons said. “They key is getting people out to vote. I haven’t heard of any opposition. That’s not to say there won’t be.”

Timmons noted that no other enterprises in Iowa face the challenge of clearing referendums to open and stay in business eight years later.

“It’s a pretty high-stakes deal,” Timmons said.

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