Beginning a countywide process
The impressive groundbreaking ceremonies for the Wild Rose Jefferson casino/hotel/convention center complex at the north edge of Jefferson last Thursday afternoon drew some 250 area residents. That’s symbolic of the history of the project.
Since the start of the effort, about 16 months ago, it’s involved hundreds of people who took an active role, with hundreds more eagerly following its progress.
Dozens of residents rode buses to Emmetsburg to see firsthand what a rural casino is like. Many more contributed time and resources to help turn out the vote in last August’s referendum, and the size of the “yes” vote played a big part in convincing a majority of the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission members that the project deserved a license.
The owners and staff of Wild Rose Entertainment, the West Des Moines developers of the project, state repeatedly how impressed they are with the countywide support they’ve received.
Hundreds of Greene County residents attended town meetings to hear why casino proponents were sold on the idea, and there was also a big turnout for an initial town meeting sponsored by folks opposed to it. Lots of letters, pro and con, were published in local newspapers. The debate, although vigorous, remained civil, and provided plenty of opportunity for residents to make up their minds.
A number of the “yes” votes in the referendum were no doubt cast by county residents who looked forward to enjoying casino gambling locally, but we’re guessing, based on local conversations, that the “yesses” were mostly for other reasons: the 71-room hotel, the large convention center that would handle concerts, reunions and receptions, the property tax dollars, and most certainly the more than a million dollars annually for worthwhile area civic and charitable efforts.
The charitable dollars are the reason for this column.
Under Iowa law, the owner of a casino has no role in how the charitable funds are spent. The local nonprofit corporation, or “qualified sponsoring organization,” that holds the gaming license is empowered to make those decisions.
In the local case, the non-profit is Grow Greene County Gaming Corp., an eight-member board formed in the fall of 2013.
The board represents all regions of the county; only one member lives within the city of Jefferson.
All eight are longtime residents of the county and veterans of civic activities. Four are women and four are men. Two are retired — I’m one of those.
We’re anticipating that the 5 percent of the adjusted gross revenue of the casino which we’ll be distributing will amount to about $1.5 million a year, based on expected casino revenues of $30 million annually.
Up to 20 percent of that $1.5 million, or about $300,000, may go to charitable and civic organizations in the six counties contiguous to Greene County.
That leaves an estimated $1.2 million every year to be distributed for worthwhile efforts in this county — about $23,000 a week.
Most of us, certainly myself, aren’t used to thinking of philanthropy in that magnitude. Our board needs first to get our heads around that concept, and then to determine our decision-making procedures.
We’ll probably take a good look at how the Palo Alto County Gaming Corp. board does it for Wild Rose Emmetsburg, and how other Iowa casino qualified sponsoring organizations operate also. We’ll continue to develop joint plans with the Greene County Community Foundation.
We haven’t begun to think about distribution specifics, much less to start accepting grant applications. Construction on the complex won’t be completed until late next summer, so funds won’t be available until then.
We know there will be differences of opinion on our board as to how to proceed, and then on how to allocate funds.
That’s as it should be — it’s a big job, and we’ll take our time working through those discussions. We’re a congenial board, and over the past several months we’ve developed a healthy respect for each other’s ideas.
I’m looking forward to the experience.
Wild Rose Jefferson came about through a countywide effort. Everyone in the county should feel welcome to share ideas about how to allocate civic and charitable dollars.
We know there are lots of thoughts about how to spend the funds.
We’ll be inviting your input.