Voters in Washington County go to the polls tomorrow (Tuesday) to decide whether to allow gambling. Owners of Catfish Bend Casino announced last week they plan to build a riverboat and resort on 320 acres on the Iowa River about 15 miles south of Iowa City. Spokesman Dan Kehl says his involvement in gambling in Iowa goes way back. The Kehl family owns 50-percent of Catfish Bend Casino, as Kehl explains his parents pioneered the riverboat business in Iowa and owned excursion boats before gambling came along. At first opposed, they decided there was no use fighting it, so they got into the business and actually received the first casino license in the state. Washington County businessman Daley Torpey is against expanded gambling, and says it’s not pure profit that’ll create the promised 600 jobs, it’s money someone must spend in a casino. Saying “I’m not against jobs, I’m just against jobs that are tied to gambling,” Torpey says backers envision “70-million dollars worth of losses that would be their revenue,” 70-million a year spent in the casino including ten-million that would come from Washington County. Torpey says he’s not disputing that figure, which comes from an estimate by the Iowa Gaming Commission. But Catfish Bend, which operates riverboat casinos in Fort Madison and Clinton, is proposing more than just a gambling barge. They’re looking at building an 80-million-dollar 200-room hotel-casino including an 18-hole golf course, 70 lots for housing units, an entertainment-conference center that will seat 2000 and host shows, and an R-V park. Businessman Torpey says many in Washington County don’t agree with him, but he doesn’t think economic development is done by building a gambling hall. He’s heard about the planned 80-million dollar complex, but says it’s a one-time expense and despite the promised one-point-seven-million dollars a year in taxes, it’s “just not a continuing economic development,” where they produce a product and encourage other new businesses to come in. Part-owner Kehl says it means jobs, a payroll estimated at sixteen-point-2 Million dollars. Iowa law on the casinos requires that preference be given to workers and even entertainers who are from Iowa, so they’ll “definitely” be hiring local people. Businessman Torley says the promised salaries, tax revenues and fees paid by the casino total about nine and-a-half million dollars a year — but the gaming commission’s own projection shows citizens of Washington County spending ten-million in a casino, so even if business is good they won’t come out ahead. One promise of casino builders is that other tax revenues will lessen the burden on property owners, but Torpey says it won’t turn out to work that way, citing communities where Catfish Bend already runs casinos. He gives Lee County as an example, where in Fort Madison the property taxes have gone up, not down. Local voters must give a thumbs-up of more than 50-percent before the state racing and gaming commission will consider granting a license. The commission will grant licenses in spring 2005.
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