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To boost local revenue, building a casino in the area is a safe bet

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JULY 07, 2009 7:21 AM

The recession has put a strain on all facets of Iowa government. We saw that struggle firsthand at the UI earlier this year when school officials learned from the state government that the university’s budget would be trimmed by $34 million in the upcoming year.

With officials reluctant to raise taxes or cut services, increasing the number of casinos in the state could be the solution to state and local officials’ fiscal distress.

Casinos have clearly demonstrated their ability to support the state. Casinos generated more than $1 billion for our state’s economy in 2008, according to the Iowa Gaming Association. Additionally, they pay nearly $400 million in taxes to local and state governments each year.

Later this month, the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission will decide whether to allow the construction of another state-licensed casino. While Johnson County is not in consideration, we hope the community will eventually clear the way for a gaming floor near Iowa City.

In order for that to happen, Johnson County voters would need to pass a gaming referendum. Since 2003, only nine Iowa counties have approved gaming referendums.

Both Iowa City and Johnson County have ambitious and expensive projects planned for the near future. Iowa City officials want to further flood-proof the city, build a new fire station, and provide raises for police officers. Johnson County officials want to build a bigger jail. Tax hikes will likely not be enough to allow officials to knock all the items off their wish lists.

Our community is left with three options: cut spending, shelve projects for better days, or look for alternative sources of revenue. Given both Iowa City’s and Johnson County’s records on fiscal restraint (or lack thereof), alternative sources of revenue seem like the most realistic option. Building a new casino close to Iowa City would be a great alternative source of revenue.

Even in a best-case scenario, having a casino in Iowa City is at least half a decade away. We hope the projects we’re currently considering will be funded by then, but the need for extra dollars in the area is unlikely to disappear. For that reason, we should still be open to the option of passing a gaming referendum to open the door for a casino in Johnson County.

Still, a community must always weigh both the negative and positive effects an endeavor such as a casino can have. In nearby Riverside — around 12 miles south of Iowa City — many shop owners said the opening of a casino put a damper on their business.

However, there is little indication Iowa City or Coralville would experience the same effect. In fact, we anticipate tourists to the area would include other area attractions in their trip to the casino. Such trips could potentially mean a boost for both Coralville and Iowa City commerce.

Much of the economic boost, we predict, would come from outside the area. UI activities and sporting events draw people from other communities to the city. People visiting the area could take a short bus trip to a new, closer casino after campus events rather than travel the out-of-the-way stretch to Riverside.

A proposed passenger rail service between Chicago and Iowa City could also draw visitors from Illinois — which a report from the Iowa Gaming and Racing Commission called an underdeveloped gambling state.

The boost of dollars coming into the community clearly outweighs negative effects a casino might bring. The Iowa City and Coralville area’s location, services, and other tourist options make it a prime place for leisurely gambling. The community could easily bring in revenue that would rival the Riverside casino’s yearly take. Such revenue would be a boon to a community that needs to rebuild and grow.


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