At the Wild Rose Casino in Jefferson, Connie Wehmeyer says she likes the slots tournaments, the free Tuesday donuts and the fact that Wild Rose puts money into the community.
“It’s good for the county,” she said. She should know. Wehmeyer only travels eight miles from her home in Grand Junction to enjoy the gaming. And last year alone, Grow Greene County, the “qualified sponsoring organization,” or non-profit partner, that receives 5 percent of Wild Rose’s revenue, awarded nearly $1.5 million in grants to municipalities, school districts, non-profits and other groups.
“In a county of 9,500 people, that's transformative,” said Grow Greene County board member Rick Morain. “It's a big deal.”
Each of Iowa’s 19 casinos must have a qualified sponsoring organization. In Greene County, the casino money is helping to make a new high school possible. It’s also helped refurbish the stained glass on the county courthouse rotunda and allowed the city of Scranton to care for its historic water tower. Other counties have used casino funds to improve their fairgrounds or put in a skate park.
Grow Greene County shares its gaming money with the six contiguous counties, too, though it isn’t required to. Last year, Boone, Calhoun, Carroll, Dallas, Guthrie and Webster each received $42,000. Most counties that do not have a casino benefit from gambling only through the County Endowment Fund, which distributes eight-tenths of one percent of all gambling revenue to the 84 counties without a casino. Last year, that worked out to about $135,000 each. The counties must put a quarter of that take into a long-term endowment fund, and grant out the other 75 percent to local groups.
“What that has done has really created two things,” says Kari McCann Boutell, president of the Iowa Council of Foundations. “The endowment for long term sustainability. But also this annual source of income for communities and counties across the state to focus on non-profit, philanthropic and community initiatives to make their communities desirable places to live, work and raise families.”
“We certainly wouldn’t be able to make the impact that we’re making without these dollars that we have to go right back into our communities,” said Sunni Swarbrick, executive director of the Story County Community Foundation.
Last year, she says grants went to a natural playscape at a county park and a new miracle ball field for people with all abilities.
Swarbrick says the grants reach every corner of the county. The point of the County Endowment Fund is to spread casino revenue to all Iowans. Still, there’s a huge difference between Greene County’s annual million-dollar-plus take and Story County’s $135,000.
“The non-gaming counties really have gotten the short end of the stick,” said former Cedar Rapids mayor Ron Corbett, “when it comes to revenue over the last 20 years.”
Corbett tried twice to bring a casino to Linn County, but the state rejected the bids. He now works on economic development at the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance.
He says casinos target Linn County residents with their marketing, but none of the eastern Iowa casinos’ charitable giving reaches them. The county has nearly a quarter of a million people and gets the same endowment fund money as all the other non-casino counties, some of which have fewer than 15,000 residents. Corbett points to the Cedar Rapids flood 10 years ago as a time when casinos could have tossed locals a rescue buoy.
“Those gaming communities that rely on the Cedar Rapids/Linn County gamers had a great chance to put some money back into our community after the flood,” Corbett said, “but it wasn't in their charter.”
Last spring, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that paves the way for sports betting, but leaves many questions up to the states. That will likely prompt the Iowa legislature to take up gambling issues in the next session, potentially including revisiting the formula for non-gaming counties.
“We are currently monitoring the issue but have not developed a formal strategy at this time,” Boutell said. “Moving forward, we will continue conversations with legislators about the important benefits of the County Endowment Fund Program for communities across Iowa.”
Corbett has his eye on specific changes.
“Hopefully those legislators that represent non-casino counties (will) take this chance, through changes in the gaming law to allow sports betting, to provide more resources to those counties that don't have gaming,” Corbett said.
What he’d like to see is a revised formula that gives Linn County and others more of the gaming jackpot.