'Won't be buying any votes'
Cal Johnson isn't telling people to vote "yes" to put a casino boat on Storm Lake. All he is asking, he says, is for them to go into an election with an open mind.
The formation of a "Don't Gamble With Our Future" committee to fight a casino hasn't phased the driving force behind a petition for a legalized gambling license for Buena Vista County.
"I've been anticipating them coming along, and have already started to gather some rebuttal information," Johnson told the Pilot-Tribune this week.
He expects to complete the petition, which needs at least 590 names, next week, and said that he will present it to the county board of supervisors as soon as it is finished.
"I even have people calling me asking to get a petition to them. In a lot of cases, they are traveling out of the area to visit a casino, and would rather see their money stay at home," he said.
His strategy to offset the opposition campaign will focus on the success stories from other communities that have taken on casino gambling, Johnson said.
"The biggest successes are the non-profit organizations in the communities with casinos, because they all benefit from the funding that comes in. Storm Lake charities would see a percentage."
He said he isn't impressed with the statements made during the formation of the Don't Gamble With Our Future group, driven by a minister from Sac County, where such a referendum was defeated.
"They are saying the same they put out anywhere, it's nothing new," Johnson said.
"They always use the warning about an increase in crime, but the data they are using is from the 1980s and 1990s. That's old, old information they go on."
He said he has been in contact with an eastern Iowa community he declined to name at this point, and found that locating a casino there had no impact on crime.
"The majority of the people who have expressed their support for a casino to me seems to be the retirement group, people who use gaming as a form of entertainment. I don't see them causing an increase in crime."
The opposition group claims that casinos target the elderly and their life savings, often timing their gambling ads on the days that Social Security checks are mailed out.
Johnson does not argue with the group about there being a small percentage of players who are problem gamblers, who may hurt their families. The people who are inclined to be problem gamblers are already losing their money elsewhere, and will do so with or without a Storm Lake casino, Johnson said.
While the opposition is settling in for a rough campaign, Johnson said he doesn't foresee a cutthroat approach to the issue.
"I'm not out for any big battle, and we sure won't be spending any $300,000 on a campaign here. That happened in Webster County, where a casino company was driving the spending. We are not backed by any casino at this point," he said.
"I don't think you need to convince people, and I sure won't be buying anyone's vote. They are either going to be for it or against it, and they will vote that way, regardless. If people vote that they want it, great; if they vote that they don't, that's great too. All I ask is for people to look at the information with an open mind. I just think it would be a disservice to this community not to take a close look at the opportunity."
The Iowa Racing and Gaming Board meets June 10, and Storm Lake member Diane Hamilton has expressed an interest in seeing a feasibility study done here.
"As I understand it, they would look at your demographics and the radius you can pull people from, and see if a casino would work. It's possible that maybe it wouldn't, maybe there's just not enough people here, like it or not," Johnson said.
He plans to lobby for the gambling vote to go on the county's general election ballot for November as opposed to a special election earlier.
"I would be very surprised if the county chose to do a special election and take on what it would cost to hold an extra election. Also, I support the passage of the local option sales tax again which will come to a vote in October, and I would encourage the supervisors to set the gambling issue for the general election so that local option tax renewal will already be decided."