Gaming Boat Backers Keep Plans Close To Vest

Communities across Iowa, including backers of what apparently may be three competing proposals from Waterloo, are putting the finishing touches on proposals for new floating casinos they hope will win over state regulators. Their plans are due Wednesday to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.

And many communities are keeping their plans hush-hush — with leaders saying they will wait until the last minute before filing applications. Despite the anticipation, commission members have said it could be months before they grant any new licenses. Administrator Jack Ketterer said in September the commission would announce a timetable for reviewing applications at its Nov. 18 meeting.

Don Hoth of the Black Hawk County Gaming Association is working with the Biloxi, Miss.-based gaming company Isle of Capri, which has boats in the Quad Cities. They hope to locate a riverboat casino on a manmade lake near Lost Island Adventurepark south of Crossroads Center.

The project would feature a “4-D” theater, RV park and campground, along with an indoor water park and other attractions. Hoth has been working to bring a casino to Waterloo for three years and is eager to finally turn an application over to the commission. But like some of his rivals, Hoth isn’t revealing any last-minute changes.

“There may be a surprise or two. I can’t discuss those right now,” said Hoth. His proposal will compete with a downtown plan proposed by the Cedar Valley Gaming Co. in partnership with Fort Madison-based Catfish Bend Casinos, Inc., and a third Waterloo proposal by the National Cattle Congress. Downtown boat project manager Gary Hoyer said his application will be ready.

“We’re putting our last-minute finishing touches on our application. We think it will be the best application in the state, second to none,” Hoyer said. The downtown plan would locate a five-story casino-hotel in the block presently occupied by Wells Fargo Bank between West Fifth and West Sixth streets along the Cedar River.

The adjacent Russell-Lamson Building, across Commercial Street, would be renovated for hotel suites. The project’s backers emphasize downtown revitalization and local ownership as assets. “It will demonstrate an extremely viable, energetic and exciting project for Black Hawk County that will help revitalize downtown and provide economic stimulus on an ongoing basis, from the creation of jobs, the commitment of substantial funds back in the community through the nonprofit (organization) and the local ownership which will return the profits to the community and Iowa,” Hoyer said.

All projects are required to devote a portion of their receipts to charitable contributions through a nonprofit organization that holds the gaming license. “I do not foresee them issuing more than one license in Black Hawk County, but that certainly is within the discretion of the commission,” Hoyer said.

The third Black Hawk County proposal, and the slowest to blossom, is the National Cattle Congress effort to revive gaming at Waterloo Greyhound Park at U.S. Highways 20 and 63. The track closed in 1996 and NCC has looked at either a floating casino or a revival of dog racing, with expanded gaming.

The opportunity to revive dog racing has passed, because it would have required voter approval by Wednesday, according to state gaming officials. Black Hawk County voters defeated two slots-at-the-track measures in 1994. The measure voters approved in October 2003 was for a gambling boat only, but did not specify a site.

A source close to NCC said Saturday that nonprofit organization expects to file a proposal with the commission Wednesday for a floating casino at the dog track site, which will include investors and a management team, with plans to be unveiled soon. NCC officials have been seeking to talk to the Meskwaki Indians of Tama about a revived gaming operation at the dog track site.

NCC cannot pursue gaming without tribal consent, under conditions of the tribe’s $9.1 million 1995 bankruptcy bailout of NCC. NCC’s proceeding with an application would require some kind of accommodation with the tribe. Tribal spokesmen say the Meskwakis are monitoring the situation, have neither encouraged nor discouraged NCC’s efforts, and appreciate NCC’s recognition of the tribe’s lien.

Annette Renaud, who is overseeing the casino application for the Franklin County Development Association, is pleased with its final proposal. But she is hesitant to share details in the midst of a very competitive process.

“I’m confident that we have a great project. You always wonder what everyone else is doing, and so you always strive to be the very best you can,” Renaud said. Kim Miller, a Northwood resident spearheading Worth County’s campaign to open a riverboat casino, is also keeping the details of a final proposal under wraps until the deadline Wednesday.

“Nobody knows. We’ve kept that very quiet,” Miller said. The Worth County project would place a riverboat casino on a man-made lake near Interstate 35, with a hotel complex and other tourism components tied together with a theme Miller will not reveal. “I’m so excited I almost can’t stay in my skin,” Miller said. So far, voters in seven Iowa counties have passed referendums allowing gaming license applications.

Communities hoping to land a riverboat casino were buoyed by news that voters in three central Iowa counties — Dallas, Warren and Madison — rejected gambling referendums on Tuesday. “I think it helps our case because, it’s three more counties … we don’t have to worry about,” Miller said.

The state commission has not yet indicated how many licenses it expects to hand out. Ketterer said in September he was expecting about eight or nine applications statewide, not including NCC. The Iowa Legislature lifted a moratorium on new gaming licenses last spring, and lifted cruising requirements for floating casinos, but did not cap the number of licenses.

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