Casino not crushing Johnson County tourism

Riverside Casino & Golf Resort attracts about 10,000 local visits every week, but officials say Johnson County’s tourism market still appears strong.

Occupancy rates for local hotels continue to rise nearly two years after the casino opened, according to Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City-Coralville Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

“People are still continuing to come at a 4-5 percent increase per year,” he said.

Occupancy rates have increased at about that clip for the past seven years, according to Schamberger.

Iowa City’s proximity to Interstate 80 has ensured solid growth for hotels, according to Schamberger.

“This market, hotel-wise at least, has shown it’s recession-proof,” he said. “Every month I sit down with someone interested in building a hotel in this market.”

Jeff Peller, general manager of the Coralville Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, said the casino might actually have provided a boost for his business.

“It does provide another local attraction for guests to participate in,” he said.

Peller added that he can’t compare before-and-after numbers for the casino, since the Marriott opened about the same time. But he said occupancy rates continue to climb for the Marriott. He predicted occupancy will be 65 percent to 70 percent for this year and more than 70 percent in 2009.

During the first few months after the Marriott opened in 2006, it averaged 45 percent occupancy.

According to the Iowa City-Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau, hotel occupancy rates increased from 62.4 percent in 2006 to 64.8 percent in 2007.

Joe Massa, Riverside Casino & Golf Resort general manager, said officials there have managed to attract a local clientele.

About one-third of the 30,000 visits to the casino every week originate locally, according to Massa, which is about what was anticipated.

The Washington County-based casino is also a major entertainment venue, attracting acts like Jay Leno, Blues Traveler, Neil Sedaka, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Randy Travis.

Schamberger said that the casino likely has taken from Johnson County entertainment venues.

“There’s no doubt that dollars are spent down there that would otherwise be spent in Johnson County,” he said.

But Schamberger added that many people only spend a certain amount on entertainment, leaving a fixed amount of dollars for venues to compete for.

Sean Fredericks, managing director of The Englert Theatre in Iowa City, said it’s difficult to gauge whether the casino has affected the Englert.

“It’s really hard to pinpoint anything to one organization,” Fredericks said.

But he added that the theater is growing, with total attendance in the first five months of 2008 up 44 percent compared to the same period last year.

If anything, Fredericks said, the casino has provided a positive effect for the Englert. The big-name acts it attracts raise the area’s profile for entertainers and audiences, according to Fredericks.

Schamberger said it’s likely that total tourism revenues for Johnson County have increased since the casino opened.

However, the bureau’s most recent figures for total tourism-related revenues are from 2005-2006, before the opened, he said.