Rolling the dice on a casino

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 12, 2003

NORTHWOOD, Iowa &045; Last call is nearing for citizens of Worth County to register to vote in a June 24 referendum on building a casino in the county.

Citizens who live in the area and have voted in a local election in the past four years have until Friday to register for the vote.

&uot;A lot of people have come to register,&uot; Kay Clark, the Worth County Auditor, said. &uot;There’s a lot of interest in it.&uot;

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So far, 107 people have registered for absentee voting. Clark said one third of that number asked for absentee ballots in the last general election.

&uot;It’s good that people are taking an interest,&uot; Clark said. &uot;Whether they

are for it or against it. I think it’s good when people get involved in what is going on.&uot;

Involved they are.

Throughout Northwood, the county seat, there are wooden signs, painted white with messages saying &uot;vote yes&uot; or &uot;vote no&uot; in black-and-red lettering.

Steve Miller, who has spearheaded the idea of building a casino in the county, has organized a group to campaign in the streets and distribute signs. He has led meetings on the subject in almost every town in the county and has brought in experts from around Iowa to speak on the possible benefits of a casino.

As with most political campaigns, also mobilized is a smaller but equally vocal group of those opposed to a casino.

&uot;We are trying to show people the drawbacks of bringing a casino to our community,&uot; said the Rev. Bob Luebbert, who has been a strong opponent of the idea. &uot;I’ve got a whole bunch of information that shows the negative effects.&uot;

Luebbert said that his research found that casinos bring social problems to an area, such as gambling problems, bankruptcies, divorces, crime and suicides.

&uot;I think it will slowly, over a period of many years, suck the life out of this town,&uot; he said.

Luebbert isn’t sure that his campaign will be successful in terms of overturning the referendum, but said the campaign, could, in effect, do the same thing.

&uot;We want to show the Iowa gaming commission that there are people here that are opposed to this project,&uot; he said. &uot;There hasn’t been a lift yet on the moratorium and we hope that if there is, they will see that the whole community isn’t for this.&uot;

The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission has enforced a five-year moratorium on new licenses for casinos, but the commission will consider lifting the ban if casino referenda pass in Worth County or one of two other northern Iowa counties considering casino proposals.

Luebbert and 13 other ministers in the county have joined together to oppose the project.

But some feel that attitude is hypocritical.

&uot;Some of the clergy are against it,&uot; said Guy Olson, of Northwood. &uot;Just a few years ago they were having bingo to raise money for projects at the church. They didn’t see anything wrong with gambling then, so I don’t see why they are so concerned now.&uot;

Olson said he has considered some of the arguments against the casino, but feels the benefits outweigh the costs.

He said he’d spoken with law-enforcement officers from other casino towns in Iowa, who have said there has been no need to increase the number of officers. The only change, he said they had, was an increase in traffic tickets.

&uot;We need this funding for our schools,&uot; he said.

The casino, Miller has said, would donate certain percentages of its earnings to county entities such as the school districts, cities and social projects.

This has been a main selling point for proponents, and a many county residents think it is the right thing for a district with declining enrollment.

&uot;We are with it because the money for the schools and the city are too good to say no to,&uot; said Jamie Breitsprecher of Northwood, as he glanced at his daughter.

But on the other side of town, a mother with child in hand gave the exact opposite answer.

&uot;We’re against it because it is going to hurt families in our area,&uot; Rita Anderson said. She mentioned Leubbert’s statistics on bankruptcies, divorces and suicides.

&uot;We feel it would hurt us more than help us,&uot; she said.

If the referendum passes, Miller will start a non-profit group, as required by the state, to apply for a permit to open a casino. If granted, they will have to look for financial backers.Once investors are found, the state gaming commission would have to grant another license from the state.