Casino's odds on the table - Saturday 12th of March 2005

Memories of fishing with their father in the Iowa River or riding their bikes along dusty roads in the summertime come to mind when Heidi and Mandy DeGood look toward the quiet rural landscape just beyond their front lawn.

For 17 years, the DeGood family has lived near the eastern edge of 115th Street, less than two miles from Riverside. In a few months, the view from their lawn could change drastically because they also live just yards away from the spot where gaming proponents hope to build an $80 million gambling casino and golf resort on 320 acres near the Iowa River.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission will hear a presentation for the Riverside casino project and nine other applicants hoping to be licensed.

The applicants will meet in Des Moines and each will give a 45-minute presentation. If the gaming commission approves the Riverside project's license in May, construction would start this summer and the facility could be open in 2007.

The meetings mark the state's most intense review of the gaming industry since the first three riverboat gambling licenses were approved in 1991.

"We know it's going to come, and when it does, it will come all at once," Heidi DeGood, 18, said while she stared past the American flag in her front lawn and beyond the sand plant and stone yard at River Products Co. "We used to stand in the road or climb our roof and watch the fireworks from River Junction. We probably won't be able to see them anymore with the casino. Right now it's quiet and we don't have a lot of traffic."

Farther east along Highway 22, the tinkling bell sounds of a seashell wind chime entered Wendy Gustoff's thoughts as she surveyed the property around her mobile home.

An 18-hole golf course could take the place of pasture just east of the mobile home park, where cattle used to graze and lurk near a barbed wire fence, Gustoff said.

The Highland High School senior lives there with her mother and about a dozen other families. She said the place holds all memories of her father, Steve Gustoff, who died March 19, 2004.

"I built a 1965 (Chevrolet) Impala here with my dad," Gustoff said. "Most of us kids grew up here together in this trailer court. Everyone who grew up moved away and went to college but we try to maintain our friendships. When my father was here, all the dads would talk about cars ... I don't know what will happen when they build the casino."

If the non-profit Washington Riverboat Foundation and the operating company, Washington County Casino Resort LLC, receive a license, the casino and golf resort would be built along Highway 22, two miles east of Highway 218.

Critics of the casino proposal question the accuracy and reality of revenue projections from casino proponents who hope to target Johnson County as its primary market for visitors. Some say the project will bring low average wages and benefits and increase dependency on gambling treatment programs across the state as well as bruise the environment and create other economic problems.

Critics also question whether the presence of a casino will create additional costs for Riverside residents to pay for improvements to roads and water resources.

Proponents say casinos boost tourism and provide opportunities for other businesses to develop. They also say casinos provide employment for thousands of Iowans and generate millions of dollars in indirect economic development through the hotel and restaurant industry. The industry employs nearly 9,000 people statewide with an annual payroll of more than $229 million, according to the Iowa Gaming Association. It also pays more than $249 million in local, county and state taxes every year.

The Riverside project would include a 200-room hotel with meeting rooms, a 1,200-seat entertainment center and a casino/food service area with 24-hour diner, buffet and steakhouse. The facility also would include 32 gaming tables and 1,100 slot machines.

The highlight of the casino would be the golf course, to be designed by Rees Jones, one of the world's premier golf course designers.

Jones will be one of several speakers participating in the Riverside casino presentation, said Dan Kehl, a member of Kehl Management, one of the groups behind the casino project.

The presentation will include an introductory speech by Kehl followed by a video showing and presentation of the project by Joe Massa, general manager for Catfish Bend.

Fifteen years ago, Kehl was in his 20s and helping his father, Robert, prepare his presentation for state regulators. The preparation paid off as Robert Kehl was one of three developers to obtain a license as Iowa became the first state to launch riverboat gambling.

On Wednesday, the Kehl family will come and show their support, but Robert Kehl will be absent because he suffered a head injury and is recuperating at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Dan Kehl said.

However, Dan Kehl said he gave a practice presentation before his father during the weekend.

After gaming license applicants complete gambling project presentations this week, gaming commission members will travel to each site April 6-7 before voting May 11 on which ones to license.

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