Despite a sluggish state economy, Iowa’s riverboats and racetracks took in a record $980 million in casino revenue during the past 12 months.
The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission said Monday that gross revenue from slot machines and table games was up 2 percent for the state budget year that ended June 30. Gambling revenue was $960 million in the same period a year earlier.

Casino admissions totaled about 19.2 million for the 12 months, down about 843,000 patrons, or about 4.2 percent, from a year ago. But revenue increased because the average gambler lost $51 per visit, up $3 from a year ago.

“Given the economic situation, it would certainly appear that the casinos are holding their own. They are certainly doing better than some other businesses,” said Michael Mahaffey of Montezuma, chairman of the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.

Wes Ehrecke, president of the Iowa Gaming Association, an industry trade group based in West Des Moines, said Iowa’s riverboats and racetracks have been affected by the soft economy, and they aren’t experiencing the double-digit growth in revenue seen in some past years.

“But people still have their dollars budgeted for entertainment,” Ehrecke said. Iowa’s casinos have also benefitted from a trend by people to make short car trips, within 150 to 200 miles from home, rather than flying on longer trips, he said.

Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Altoona reported the highest gross casino revenue during the past 12 months, totaling $150.4 million, up almost 3 percent from a year earlier. Admissions totaled 2.64 million, and the average slot machine player at Prairie Meadows left behind $57. Prairie Meadows has 1,481 slot machines.

“From the standpoint of our market here, I think we have had a good year,” said Robert Farinella, general manager of Prairie Meadows.

Although the statewide casino industry has probably been affected by the economic slowdown, there was still some room for growth in the Des Moines-area market, Farinella said. “With our marketing efforts and the quality of our product, we have been very fortunate to really be the entertainment facility for our community,” he said.

Farinella said the Racing Association of Central Iowa – the nonprofit board that oversees Prairie Meadows – is in the midst of a strategic planning process that is exploring ways of keeping the Altoona track and casino competitive. Options could include construction of a multi-purpose entertainment facility and a new restaurant, but no decisions have been made, he said.

At Osceola’s Lakeside Casino Resort, gross gambling revenue during the past 12 months totaled $55.3 million, up 2.4 percent from a year ago. Admissions were 982,359, with the average customer leaving behind $56.

Council Bluffs continued to be Iowa’s richest casino market, with Bluffs Run Greyhound Park and Casino, Harrah’s Casino and the Ameristar Casino generating a total of $381 million in gambling revenue – up 1 percent – and admissions totaling 7.8 million.

Ameristar was tops in the Bluffs market and second in Iowa in total casino revenues, pulling in $147 million with 2.8 million admissions.

“Gaming continues to be a positive influence on our community. It has really transformed it in a very favorable manner. We are pleased with the numbers and pleased that they are continuing to attract a lot of customers,” said Chuck Smith, a Council Bluffs lawyer who is president of the Iowa West Racing Association. The nonprofit group holds the city’s three gambling licenses in a partnership with Ameristar Casinos, which operates one riverboat, and with Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., which operates a riverboat and the greyhound track.

Smith said the casino industry has provided millions of dollars for charity in Council Bluffs, including a donation for a new veterans memorial dedicated over the Independence Day weekend. The casinos have also spurred tourism, and the city’s hotels are almost always nearly full, even though a host of new lodging facilities have been built in recent years, he said.

Robert Miller of Muscatine, president of the Truth About Gambling Foundation, an anti-gambling group, said he views the latest report simply as a sign that the numbers of losers in Iowa continue to grow.

“We haven’t gained anything. The more we expand gambling, the more costs we run up and the bigger the economic hole we run into,” Miller said. “This is crime, divorce, incarcerations, suicides . . . the loss of local business because discretionary dollars are not being spent in the local retail communities.”