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Gamblers Left Behind $1.15 Billion at Casinos

Average Patron Lost $57 During Past 12 Months

William Petroski

Des Moines Register

July 12, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

Gamblers left behind a record $1.15 billion over the past 12 months at Iowa's riverboat and racetrack casinos, up 4.8 percent from the same period a year earlier, state records show.

The casinos hosted more than 20 million guests, who lost an average of $57 each between July 1, 2005, and June 30, 2006, according to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.

Commission studies have shown that a majority of Iowa players are from neighboring states, and casino industry officials said they are continuing to court those patrons.

"Certainly, with higher gasoline prices, people are tightening their belts. Maybe they are not taking so many far-away trips, but our casinos can offer them an overnight stay and great entertainment," said Wes Ehrecke, president of the Iowa Gaming Association, a casino trade group.

The figures do not include Indian casinos, which are not state-regulated.

Most of the increase in gambling revenue can be attributed to newly expanded racetrack casinos, which have opened in Council Bluffs and Dubuque, and to new casino operations in Worth County and Emmetsburg, said Jack Ketterer, the commission's administrator.

More growth is expected as new riverboat casinos open in September in Riverside and next spring in Waterloo, and as a $60 million expansion project is completed in the months ahead at Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Altoona, he said.

"The one unknown is exactly how much of an impact all of that will have on the other facilities," Ketterer added.

One of the big surprises has been the success of the Diamond Jo Worth County Casino on Interstate Highway 35, just south of the Minnesota border. During its first three months, the casino has pulled in 335,000 customers, who have left behind almost $17 million, Ketterer said.

The Diamond Jo Worth Casino, owned by Dubuque-based Peninsula Gaming, will ask state regulators on Thursday for permission to proceed with a major expansion project that will include 300 more slot machines, a new poker room, plus more space for entertainment and other improvements.

"We continue to receive a warm reception in that market, and we continue to attract the majority of our visitors from Minnesota," said Diamond Jo spokeswoman Carrie Tedore. The Diamond Jo Worth has been so busy on weekends that it's been common for gamblers to stand four to five deep behind slot machines, waiting for their turn to play, she added.

The Wild Rose Emmetsburg, which opened in late May in northwest Iowa, drew 84,015 guests who left behind $2.77 million in slightly more than one month of business. That was on target for financial projections, officials said.

The Emmetsburg casino has been attracting nearly one-third of its customers from out of state, mostly from Minnesota, and it hopes to draw vacationers from the nearby Iowa Great Lakes during the summer months, said spokeswoman Jamie Buelt.

"The traffic in June was done with hardly any advertising. The marketing programs are kicking in right now, so it is going to be even better," Buelt said.

Prairie Meadows attracted nearly 2.8 million customers over the past 12 months who left behind $178.9 million, for an average loss of $64 per guest.

"Things are looking pretty bright," said Prairie Meadows Chairman Jack Bishop, who is also the casino's interim general manager. He noted that casino revenue was up by $4.5 million, an increase of 2.6 percent. He said that's a good increase, considering higher gasoline prices and competition for much of the past year from the Iowa Lottery's TouchPlay gambling machines. The TouchPlay machines, which proliferated in taverns and other retail establishments, were banned by the Iowa Legislature in early May.

Prairie Meadows will have a ribbon-cutting Aug. 8 for a second-floor casino expansion that will include more room for slot machines and table games, Bishop said. An auditorium that will seat 1,200 for concerts and 800 for banquets will open in late September or October, while a 250-seat buffet restaurant and a 150-seat fine-dining restaurant will open in February. A new paddock and jockeys' quarters have been completed.

"Things are shaping up. We are happy with where we are at," Bishop said. "I don't have any doubt that this will help expand our business and increase our revenues."

Osceola's Lakeside Casino Resort drew slightly more than 1 million guests over the past 12 months who left behind $56.27 million, state records show. That compares with 944,000 guests for the same period a year earlier who lost $56.31 million.