COUNCIL BLUFFS — Las Vegas. Buenos Aires. Stockholm. New Delhi. Sioux City.
One of the world's most recognizable entertainment brands is coming to western Iowa — and it's not just a rock 'n' roll burger joint.
Construction begins in Sioux City this summer on an $118.5 million Hard Rock Casino complex that promoters and local leaders say will serve as a catalyst to ignite a downtown renaissance in Iowa's fourth-largest city.
The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission voted 3-2 Thursday at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs to approve a gambling license for the project. The land-based casino will replace the Argosy Casino riverboat, which opened in 1994.
“Definitely excited. Relieved. Pleased,” Bill Warner, president of Las Vegas-based Warner Gaming, said after the vote.
Warner Gaming operates the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and other entertainment and resort properties. A subsidiary, Sioux City Entertainment, will develop the casino.
Hard Rock restaurants and casinos are known for walls adorned with memorabilia from legendary musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Sioux City native Tommy Bolin, a guitarist who played with Zephyr, The James Gang and Deep Purple.
Sioux City's Hard Rock Casino will be a state-of-the-art, 100,000-square-foot entertainment facility — 30,000 square feet devoted to gambling — that will grow out of the renovated Battery Building. The Romanesque Revival-style structure was designed by a New York architectural firm and built in 1906. It is along Wesley Parkway on the west side of downtown.
The casino is expected to create more than 500 permanent jobs.
The casino floor will be filled with slot machines and table games. There will be two specialty restaurants and a buffet. A store would sell mementos bearing the Hard Rock name.
Live entertainment will showcase nationally recognized bands and top local and regional talent. Nearly 1,000 new surface parking spaces are planned.
Sioux City Mayor Bob Scott, who says he's not a gambling proponent, said he looks forward to the project starting. The casino is expected to open in summer 2014.
“Just having it downtown, if we're going to have gambling, is important to me,'' he said.
Scott said he hopes the developers will hire as many Argosy Casino workers as possible.
“We don't want anybody to be without a job,” he said. “They'll need those employees.''
Warner made no promises.
“We'll be hiring people who are highly qualified in the hospitality business, who have experience and who really want to deliver that really great Hard Rock guest experience,” he said.
Hard Rock's nonprofit sponsor was Missouri River Historical Development. Iowa law requires casino developers to pair with qualified nonprofit organizations. The nonprofit group holds the state gambling license.
Mark Monson, president of the nonprofit organization, said Sioux City and Woodbury County would benefit from its partnership with the casino.
The nonprofit organization now receives about $1.8 million a year from the Argosy to distribute to local nonprofits and governmental agencies. It has awarded more than $20 million in grants over the past two decades.
The group expects to have about $3.8 million annually to distribute once Hard Rock Casino is fully operating.
Monson said funding programs to create and retain jobs and develop the workforce will be a priority.
“Let's make our county bigger, better and grow,'' he said.
The commission put Woodbury County's license up for bid after months of failed talks on a new long-term deal between Argosy's owner, Penn National Gaming, and Missouri River Historical Development. Penn National submitted two proposals. Warrior Entertainment, a subsidiary of Ho-Chunk Inc., the development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, proposed another.
Commissioners praised all four projects, saying they could have accepted any of them.
Chairman Jeff Lamberti of Ankeny and Commissioners Carl Heinrich of Council Bluffs and Kris Kramer of New Hampton voted for the Hard Rock project. Commissioners Greg Seyfer of Cedar Rapids and Dolores Mertz of Algona voted no.
Before a standing-room-only crowd of about 250 people, commissioners extended the decision drama for 40 minutes. They talked about the pros and cons of each proposal and how tough it was to make a decision. They received hundreds of letters and emails.
They read thousands of pages of reports and studies. They toured proposed casino sites.
Heinrich said the Hard Rock proposal had the best location, with easy access from Interstate 29. Sioux City is 94 miles north of the Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan area.
Heinrich said the developers acquired enough property for the casino and other amenities, and had room for expansion.
“The overall plan impressed me,'' he said.
Heinrich said no one raised concerns about casino competition between Council Bluffs and a reinvigorated Sioux City casino.
“Some people may go up there. Some may come here,'' he said. “That's fine. I don't see it as a major issue.''
Lance Morgan, Ho-Chunk's chief executive, said he was disappointed that his proposal fell short.
“It just came down to a contest at the end, and we got second,” he said. “That doesn't mean much in this game.”
Morgan said the project raised Ho-Chunk's profile in the Sioux City area and will lead to more opportunities.
“It just makes me want to do more investment in Siouxland,'' he said.
Bluffs Mayor Tom Hanafan welcomed the commission to the city, saying the gambling industry has been good for Council Bluffs. The city is home to the Ameristar and Harrah's riverboats, Horseshoe Casino and Bluffs Run Greyhound Park.
“It's been a good investment,'' he said.
Hanafan said charitable contributions made by the Iowa West Foundation, funded by the Iowa West Racing Association from fees paid by casino operators, have made “a huge difference in Council Bluffs, Omaha and eastern Nebraska’’ over the years. The foundation has awarded more than $285 million.
Iowa legalized riverboat gambling in 1989 and land-based casinos in 2007. The state has 18 state-licensed racing and gambling facilities and three federally regulated American Indian casinos.
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