Commission OKs casino plan

Johnston – State officials sanctioned Burlington business owner Randy Winegard’s request Thursday to operate two year–round gambling facilities in southeast Iowa, saying the move will guarantee local ownership while benefiting the region economically.

Winegard had sought Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission approval to operate separate casinos in Burlington and Fort Madison. The Catfish Bend Casino riverboat currently docks for six months in the winter in Burlington and for six months in the summer in Fort Madison.

„This is exactly what the commission is looking for,“ commission member Diane Hamilton said Thursday. „I am thrilled with the Iowa investors and the investment you’re making into the community.“

A group of local investors led by Winegard will buy the majority shares of Catfish Bend Casino from the Bob Kehl family, guaranteeing the casino remains locally controlled.

„This is about Iowans investing in Iowans,“ said Gary Hoyer, attorney for Catfish Bend Casino. „This is about local ownership. This application will continue the tradition of serving both Fort Madison and Burlington.“

During Thursday’s meeting, Winegard and several local officials told the commission about the project, its benefits and the investment that will go into the communities.

Catfish Bend started 12 years ago after a group of local investors wanted to fill a void left when another casino, the Emerald Lady, left. Winegard said the operation is unique because it represents a regional effort owned by a diverse group of local investors, with the Kehl family being the majority owner. The Kehl family wants to sell its shares, and Winegard wants to buy them to maintain local control.

Winegard said with two year–round facilities, the region could build on becoming a tourist destination.

„A significant amount of our gaming revenue comes from outside of Iowa,“ he said, adding that about 60 percent of the visitors come from Illinois.

The approval means Winegard’s company, Huckleberry Entertainment, can make improvements to both locations since they’ll be permanently moored.

The Burlington casino will be on 24 acres next to FunCity, Winegard’s other business venture that offers a variety of recreational activities including an indoor/outdoor water park.

The casino project will include a recreational lake, casino, events center, additional hotel rooms and a parking garage and surface parking, Winegard said. There also will be a riverwalk feature, which will feature pictures and murals of historic Burlington.

Winegard said the location on U.S. 61 is ideal because of the traffic that passes by it: about 22,000 vehicles a day, with 5,000 from outside Des Moines County.

With the new casino adjacent to FunCity, gaming commission Administrator Jack Ketterer asked how officials would keep minors from entering. Winegard said both entrances will be guarded, plus, the children’s activities will be away from the casino entrance.

The new project is expected to generate more revenues for the not–for–profit license holder, Southeast Iowa Regional Riverboat Commission, which would mean more money going to the member communities and to the state.

Currently, Burlington, Fort Madison and Keokuk each get about USD 300,000 a year. Des Moines and Lee counties each get about USD 18,000. Hoyer said he expects those numbers to double.

Several area officials testified the proposal will benefit the region.

„The profits from Catfish stay in our communities,“ SIRCC Chairman Larry Smith said.

Although Catfish Bend could have selected a single location, casino and area officials said it would have been unfair to choose between the two cities.

„We’ve created a destination without closing the door on any of the two communities,“ Hoyer said.

Burlington City Manager Bruce Slagle said the new operating schedule and project will create jobs and draw more people to the region. He predicted those visitors will then patronize local businesses.

Dennis Hinkle, president of the Burlington/West Burlington Area Chamber of Commerce, agreed.

„This is a tremendous economic development project for southeast Iowa,“ he said, adding it will create 300 new jobs, new capital investment and increase the local tax base.

Hinkle said it will help diversify the local manufacturing–based economy. With fewer and fewer of those jobs, companies such as Catfish Bend can add new types of jobs to the area.

„We’re very pleased Randy has taken leadership on this project,“ Hinkle said. „There is no one more committed to our region.“