Jefferson: Iowa legislators this coming session are expected to review a potential expansion of online gaming in Iowa beyond sports wagering to making casino-style games – like slots and poker — available on mobile phones and other Internet-connected devices.
The issue is a major one for the future of casinos, say several casino and gaming sources.
“I do see the issue being studied this coming session, but I see the outright legalization of it being a multi-year study with all stakeholders providing input,” State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, the Wilton Republican who chairs the Iowa House State Government Committee, tells this newspaper.
The casino industry in Iowa is split on the matter. Some operators see increased mobile gaming as a way to attract younger casino patrons, and possibly get them involved in other activities at the casinos. The counter argument is that more mobile gaming will cannibalize brick-and-mortar operations.
“The casino industry is pretty divided,” said Iowa Racing and Gaming Administrator Brian Ohorilko.
The commission, which regulates gaming in Iowa, is neutral on potential expansion of online gaming, he said.
“It is 100 percent up to the Legislature,” Ohorilko said.
Wes Ehrecke, president and CEO of the Iowa Gaming Association, which represents Iowa’s 19 state-regulated casinos, said eight companies that operate casinos in Iowa are in favor of expanded online gaming, with four opposed.
Some operators have more than one casino in Iowa. Native American casinos aren’t represented by the gaming association.
“It’s going to take time,” Ehrecke said in a phone interview. “You’ve got an industry that’s divided.”
Ehrecke, who has been in the gaming role since 2000, said it makes sense for Iowa to learn from other states that already have online casino gaming.
Locally, Wild Rose Casino and Resort President and Chief Operating Officer Tom Timmons said his casino organization, which operates in Jefferson, supports the expansion.
“I have looked at it long and hard,” Timmons said. “What I’ve seen and what is happening is there are other states that have it. It’s going to happen someday. I’d like Iowa, rather than waiting to be the 26th or 30th state or whatever that puts us in, why not be in the first 12 or 15 and jump ahead.”
Timmons said brick-and-mortar business may drop in coming years regardless of what the casinos do with online wagering. Boosting it allows the casinos to attract younger patrons, he said.
“They’re not coming to the casino,” Timmons said. “I don’t even know what they do. They probably aren’t even going to movies anymore. There are a lot of things the phone and computers are starting to take over so if the industry wants to keep up, I think someday it’s got to happen.”
Timmons said years ago, when casinos began cropping up around the nation, a veteran in the industry told him Las Vegas would still thrive. The local casinos, built for convenience and access, would serve as something of small fishing ponds, but the Vegas Strip would remain the ocean, a destination of dreams for people who are regular gamblers in other states, Timmons recalled of the long-ago conversation.
“That proved to be true,” Timmons said. “I think that’s the same thing you will see with online gaming when it happens. Now they know what we do. I think it exposes us more to say, ‘Hey, you want to come in to have the experience and hear the bells and whistles and watch other people have a good time, have something to eat, see a show? You come to the casino.’”
The best case scenario is Wild Rose can enter something of a Goldilocks zone for a period of years where it holds existing customers at the actual casino and expands its patron base online.
“That’s what I am thinking is maybe it’s a way to introduce people to what we do who may not otherwise walk through the door,” Timmons said.
Timmons said Wild Rose already has contracts signed with online casino gaming providers should such wagering be legalized in Iowa.
The casino group partners with providers on sports betting right now.
“We are trying to look at the future and see what needs to be done,” Timmons said.
Timmons said the companies that serve as online vendors for Iowa’s casinos will lobby for the legislation in Des Moines.
“I’m not going to go down there and propose a bill,” Timmons said. “I’m going to support it if one gets proposed. Obviously, it’s new. I think they are going to have to get some intelligence, data.”
Timmons said Iowa legislators need to think about what happens to casinos in the state when Nebraska casinos come online and more are constructed in Illinois and Minnesota.
“Iowa has developed into a leader in this industry, not a follower,” Timmons said.
Besides Jefferson, Wild Rose also operates casinos in Emmetsburg and at the Iowa-Illinois border in Clinton.
“I’ve seen a lot in 30 years,” Timmons said. “I know you have to be willing to change.”