Opinion from the Editor

Thursday, June 3, 2004

Plan B for gambling fight

A new Storm Lake committee is gearing up for a long, hard fight to defeat a casino boat on Storm Lake, but what if it didn't have to come to a bitter battle at all?

The assumption is that they will have to find and convince voters around the county in a long, contentious and rather expensive war of words to stop gambling interests at the polls.

Perhaps, but that may not be the only avenue.

One, Lakeside city officials may have a say here. If the council of that little town were convinced to strongly oppose the plan, and perhaps use zoning tools to address the future of the site, an election might not ever happen. Storm Lake city officials don't seem eager to jump on board as an alternative at the moment.

Two, they could purchase or find a developer to purchase the Cobblestone Ballroom. Gambling petition organizer Cal Johnson has said plainly that his motivation is to see the Cobb finally restored, and that he would drop the petition if there was an alternative way to reopen the landmark.

Three, they might work on the Iowa DNR. These people are responsible for the natural lake shoreline, its utility for recreational use and its effective fishery. If the DNR frowns on a casino boat on Storm Lake, a license might be a moot point.

There are a lot of if's and but's to be addressed before a casino ever sets float on Storm Lake, and a vote is just one of them.

For that matter, a vote may not be the end-all of the issue. A close vote may not be enough to convince a casino company that they are wanted here. Some suggest it would take a 60 percent approval rate, and that's hard to do - it took three elections to reach that rate to build a middle school in Storm Lake. And if Cobblestone is to be the most important factor, will a casino boat operator really be interested in shelling out a couple of million dollars to fix a run-down vacant building, which one official has said has a considerable amount of sensitive asbestos to deal with? Will Lakeside give up its control of the strip of public park land between the ballroom and the proposed casino site? And while the Cobblestone owner has expressed an interest in the project, he hasn't named a price for the building, let alone promised it.

The committee opposing the casino is organizing for a battle, but I wonder if it really has to be that way.

A veteran of the Sac County election tells them that the other side will stop at nothing to twist the truth. He predicts that local political leaders will fool and fail us. He speaks of character assassination, media manipulation, even the potential for sides to fall into destroying each other's yard signs. And even as a minister, he admits to emerging from the experience somewhat jaded.

And indeed, all that and more has happened elsewhere. Some communities have become so deeply split and bitter over a gambling issue that it's hard to see a winner at all no matter how the vote comes out.

I would hate to think that it has to be that way in Buena Vista County.

If it comes to a campaign and a vote, maybe we can show the proper way to do it.

On both sides of the issue in Storm Lake, we have good people, community-minded people, who are genuinely dedicated to doing what they feel is the right and positive thing.

So maybe we can have what no one else has managed - a clean, honest campaign that examines gambling from all sides based on real facts, not twisted statistics, sensational plays on emotions and personal attacks instead of issues.

Though I personally don't feel a casino fits Storm Lake, it does not have to be an evil thing to take a fair look at any potential for economic development. And it's a very good thing to have the other side now represented as well. We need that voice.

Now, calling "yes" or "no" won't be good enough; not here.

The proponents of a casino will need to show us how we will protect ourselves from the negatives such as traffic and parking problems, impact on image as a family destination, crime, problem gambling and its impact on families.

And opponents have a responsibility too. If they are to defeat a casino, they should also be asked what they would propose to bring in revenue and attraction, and how they alternately propose to get the Cobblestone reopened.

After all, battle or no, we're all working for the same thing, the best our community can be.