Riverboat casino for Iowa Great Lakes?

Thursday, February 27, 2003

It's the coffee shop talk around the Iowa Great Lakes: Is someone trying to put a riverboat casino on the Okoboji lakes? And if so, will the protective lakes area residents allow it? In short - Will a gambling boat float?

According to Jack P. Ketterer, Administrator for the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission, it is not yet a real issue.

"Something could change next week, next year, or in ten years," he said.

"But right now, a riverboat casino in the Lakes region is merely talk."

Ketterer did point out that Okoboji has been eyed by state legislators as a potential location.

"Since the Iowa Supreme Court's decision last June, there has been a great deal of speculation as to how the state would make up the lost tax revenue," he said. "Some in the gaming industry feel that if more riverboat licenses were issued, no tax increase would be necessary for the existing riverboats.

Okoboji is one of the possible locations mentioned, he confirmed.

On Tuesday, legislation was introduced in the Iowa Senate that could allow up to three more gambling boats in Iowa, and remove the restriction that casino boats be able to cruise.

Ketterer hasn't heard of any specific developer's plan to date.

"I am aware of no one who has expressed a specific interest in a riverboat in the Lakes region," he said.

Rep. Greg Stevens of Milford said legislation must change before there is any possibility of a riverboat casino in the Iowa Great Lakes.

The Iowa Supreme Court is currently reviewing tax rates on gambling facilities. Their decision will likely affect revenue flow from gambling, and thus future actions.

"I think the stand of most of the people in the house and those that I've talked to in the governor's office is that we need to wait to see what the supreme court decides," said Stevens. "That decision is expected in June at the earliest."

Following that decision, Stevens expects a gambling bill to surface in both houses.

While the possibility for a gambling boat in Dickinson County is still far from reality, Stevens is already beginning to do some research.

"In areas of Iowa that have been economically depressed, a gambling boat coming in has helped the area," he said. "I'm looking for a model of an area doing well to get an idea of what might happen in Okoboji."

Stevens isn't the only one concerned about a riverboat possibility.

Spirit Lake resident Joann Stockdale sent out an e-mail recently informing her friends of the legislative issues and the potential for casino construction in the region.

"I am not in favor of gambling extension into Dickinson County," said Stockdale. "It's a quality of life issue."

She went on to say that while a riverboat casino holds the potential to put money into the tourist community, it also stands to hurt retail business.

"We are a rural county nine months of the year and we will notice it," she said.

Stockdale pointed to university studies showing that 75 percent of gamblers come from within a 60-mile radius.

"A majority of the money will be lost by local people," she added. "I would think that nearby communities like Spencer, Sibley, and Estherville would be very nervous."

Entrepreneur Toby Shine of Wahpeton was falsely credited with pushing for a gambling boat in one of Stockdale's e-mails. (That e-mail was later retracted.)

"I don't know whether I'd be in favor of it or not," said Shine. "If there's going to be a discussion of it, we ought to be hearing both sides."

The Iowa Great Lakes Chamber has acknowledged the concerns and plans a discussion meeting.

"The chamber board has taken no position on the issue yet," said Iowa Great Lakes Chamber Director Tom Kuhlman.

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