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Casino vote is today

LARCHWOOD, Iowa -- In gambling -- as in life -- there are winners and losers.

Today's vote to determine the fate of a proposed casino near Larchwood will also produce a winning side and a losing side.

The proposed construction of the controversial $90 million resort and casino in the far northwest corner of Iowa has pitted Lyon County Citizens for Casino Truth, which opposes the casino, against Citizens for Economic Growth in Lyon County, which supports it. Both sides agree the vote today will likely be a close one.

"Whichever side gets their supporters out to vote is going to win," said Sharon Haselhoff, the public relations director at Riverside Casino and Golf Resort, who is working with Citizens for Economic Growth in Lyon County.

Gene Ver Steeg, chair of Lyon County Citizens for Casino Truth, said late last week that there had already been a large number of absentee votes cast. He claims voters are being misled by casino proponents' advertising.

"Their signs say vote 'yes' for a resort. Well, Iowa law does not require voting for a resort. Iowa law does require voting for a casino, and that's what the vote is about," he said. "I had someone call me that went to the courthouse to vote yes for a resort, read (the ballot), saw that it was a gambling establishment, voted no and felt like he was deceived."

Haselhoff said the vote is not to permit gambling in Iowa -- which is already legal -- but to permit the construction of a structure in which gambling will take place. She said the campaign has been transparent, finishing a series of 12 town hall meetings for concerned citizens last week.

"We've had meetings available for folks to come in, ask questions. We want to be very open about the plan," she said, adding the meetings have been well-attended.

Ver Steeg said his group has also seen community support.

"I think they're quite responsive," he said. "I've worked on a lot of political campaigns, and I've never worked on a campaign that was easier to raise volunteers and get money as this has been."

Both groups have also stepped up their efforts, telephoning and going door-to-door to remind people to vote. Ver Steeg has taken his message to the radio waves, while Haselhoff said her group is reaching out to undecided voters.

One of the main issues surrounding the proposed casino concerns the economic impact on the community.

Proponents say the casino will create 400 great-paying jobs, averaging about $27,000 a year plus benefits, said Haselhoff.

Ver Steeg said those numbers are skewed, citing the casino in Riverside as an example.

"We've done some investigating there and the jobs are very low pay," he said. "The starting wage in Lyon County will probably only be $9 an hour. At the Riverside casino, a lot of the people can only work 30 hours a week, and those part-time people don't even have benefits."

"Then there's other jobs where the benefits are offered but employees have to pay for all the benefits," added Dale Torpey, president and CEO of Federation Bank in Washington, Iowa. "You need to ask 'How much of the benefits does the casino pay for? What percentage do they pay for a family plan?'"

Torpey, a self-professed gambling hater, fought against the casino that was built in Riverside several years ago.

Haselhoff indicated nearly 75 percent of the proposed jobs -- or about 300 -- would be full-time status, and $9 would be the lowest wage paid.

"Nine dollars is going to be for the busboy in the buffet, $9 is not the starting wage for every one in the facility," she explained.

Proponents also argue that the resort portion will bring outside funds into the community.

"It will have a lot of amenities, from a hotel to an event center, which will make it a destination resort," Haselhoff said.

It is estimated that $1.5 million of income will be redistributed to the community, including schools, each year.

"Our main concern is there's a huge price that has to be paid by families who fall victim to people with a gambling habit," Ver Steeg said. "Even though some money is going to be given to the community, it's just not possible to put a price on destroying families."

Opponents cite statistics from sites such as, which estimates 5.4 percent of Iowans are considered pathological or problem gamblers, and that the number of problem gamblers increases by more than 200 percent within 50 miles of a casino.

"If people are against this for faith reasons, I'm not going to change that," Haselhoff said. "Are there a few folks that have an addiction to this? Yes, anywhere from 1 to 3 percent. But 97 percent of the population have no problem with it and that's the people we're building this resort for."

Haselhoff added that the state has programs in place to help problem gamblers end their habits.

If the Lyon County gambling referendum passes, the license to the resort and casino would be jointly held by builders Kehl Management and the local Lyon County Riverboat Foundation Board. It would include 100 rooms in the hotel, an 18-hole golf course and 800 slot machines and 24 gaming tables in the casino.