Storm Lake businessman Cal Johnson is gaining on his goal to petition for a license to develop a casino boat at the Cobblestone Inn area in Lakeside. He estimated on Tuesday that he had gathered 400 signatures with a minimum of 590 needed to call a Buena Vista County public referendum.
Once he has the signatures, he plans to begin approaching casino companies to try to get at least one interested in developing the Cobblestone area. His first target, Johnson said, will likely be Harrah's Entertainment.
Harrah's operates 26 casinos, racing/gambling facilities, and casino hotels, from its huge properties in Las Vegas and Atlantic City to two properties in western Iowa - Bluffs Run greyhound track casino and Harrah's Council Bluffs.
Harrah's was launched 60 years ago in Reno, Nevada, and now operates in 13 states with revenues of over $4 billion per year. Most of its properties are land-based, but it does operate a boat and casino in North Kansas City.
"I have not talked to any potential casinos yet. Once I have the signatures down for an election, I feel like that will give me the leverage to approach them," Johnson said. "I'm going to shoot at Harrah's first because they are an established company, and with AmeriStar looking at Fort Dodge, they may be more likely to feel Storm Lake is their chance to get into the northwest Iowa marketplace."
Approaching the companies that have found success in the Sioux City area, notably Argosy, is another option.
"I'm new at this, and learning as I go. Once we have the word out and the petition ready to go to a vote, I'm anticipating that we will draw some interest from the casino companies," Johnson said.
As he circulates the petition, most people he encounters seem willing to sign, he said.
"Some people say that they are not really casino people or gamblers, but that they do want to see the Cobblestone Ballroom up and going again."
That is a key piece of the plan for the organizer of the petition as well. "If the Cobblestone were not to be part of the development, I don't know that I would be pursuing this. If we could put an investment group together that would restore and reopen the Cobblestone, we'd forget this casino - but that's been tried before and it didn't go anywhere."
It appears that Johnson's petition will be done in plenty of time to choose between seeking either a countywide special election that could happen as early as July, or the general election ballot in November. "I'm planning to wait until I talk to the casino companies and see how they feel about that before making a decision," he said of the choice in election strategies.
Johnson has not yet approach the State Racing and Gaming Association, noting that new legislation paving the way for a potentially unlimited number of new gambling licenses is still waiting for the governor's signature. Diane Hamilton of Storm Lake, who sits on that commission, predicts that it will be at least a year before the group is ready to approve any new licenses, but was supportive of the concept of a casino for the Storm Lake area and suggests that an application be made as early as possible.
Lakeside Mayor Gene Mandernach has also been strongly in favor, while some Storm Lake City officials have been opposed, lukewarm or neutral. "I haven't approached the city of Storm Lake. I feel like Lakeside is its own separate entity, and it is that city council I should be talking to," Johnson said.
He is scheduled to meet with the Lakeside council in open session May 11, 7 p.m.
Johnson is also planning to hold a second organizational public meeting - this time with a little more notice in hope of a larger crowd. A date will be announced soon, he said.
Some who oppose a casino say that they draw the wrong element, and tend to hurt families that can least afford it. Proponents of the plan note that a small percentage of gamblers are addicted, but say they expect a casino would bring few problems for the community.
Harrah's commissioned a study in 2003, which showed that just over a quarter of all Americans age 21 and over gambled at a casino in 2002, Harrah's officials said. On average, gamblers visited a casino 5.8 times a year.