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Dubuque, Iowa: Former riverboat casino finds new life on land

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010, at 12:04 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011, at 11:20 a.m.

In about two weeks, the casino review board will choose one of two applicants to build a Sumner County casino — Peninsula Gaming or Global Gaming Solutions. To see what their operations are like elsewhere, The Eagle visited casinos in Iowa and Oklahoma run by the two companies.

DUBUQUE, Iowa — The Diamond Jo Casino blends in with the other buildings along the waterfront in this Mississippi River town.

Its prairie-style exterior of brick, limestone and stucco has no large neon signs or flashing lights to suggest what's inside.

The Diamond Jo opened as an upscale land-based casino in 2008 after spending its previous life as a riverboat.

Peninsula Gaming's $200 million investment in the casino and investments in other properties helped rejuvenate the waterfront in Dubuque, a city of 60,000 that shares the Mississippi with Wisconsin and Illinois.

Peninsula Gaming is competing with Global Gaming Solutions of Ada, Okla., for the right to build and manage a state-owned casino in Sumner County. It plans a $260 million Kansas Star Casino for one of two sites near Mulvane.

Peninsula, which has its headquarters in a renovated brewery near the Diamond Jo, also owns the Diamond Jo Casino in Northwood, Iowa; Evangeline Downs Racetrack & Casino in Opelousas, La.; and the Amelia Belle Casino in Amelia, La.

The interior at its Dubuque casino is subdued and warm, from the amber glow of the chandeliers suspended from black ceilings to the muted colors in the wool carpets. Ceramic and polished marble tile accent the casino floor.

The casino is 188,000 square feet, about the same size as Peninsula's proposed Kansas Star.

The gambling floor is smaller than that proposed for the Kansas Star, with 983 slots and 19 gaming tables, compared with 2,000 slots and 50 tables at the final phase in Kansas.

The Diamond Jo has averaged $5.8 million a month in gambling revenue since it opened, according to the casino. The state gets 22 percent of the revenue, and the casino gives smaller portions to the city and local interests.

The Kansas Star wouldn't look like the Diamond Jo. It would instead feature a ranch motif to match its rural setting. But the interior would create the same warm, non-Vegas organic feel as the Diamond Jo, according to Brent Stevens, Peninsula's CEO.

"We don't want people to walk in and feel they're in just another riverboat, or just another square box building with slot machines. We want to present a certain personality," he said.

Diamond Jo's amenities

Among the features at the Diamond Jo is the Tree Bar, with a bar top and cabinets made from cypress that was logged several hundred years ago, sunk in the Great Lakes and reclaimed from the bottom.

Segments of birch trees are displayed behind colored glass around the bar. The flooring is wood plank.

Upstairs is a 30-lane bowling alley, with league bowling and occasional professional events. It is the major recreational entertainment feature other than gambling at the casino. Peninsula's plans in Kansas include a facility for equestrian events.

The Diamond Jo's prime live entertainment venue is the Mississippi Moon Bar, named after a lyric in the Doobie Brothers hit "Black Water." An autographed white guitar used by the group during a performance there hangs on a wall.

The theater features intimate tri-level seating, with none of the 1,000 seats farther than 80 feet from the stage.

Acts such as Jewel, Ted Nugent, America, Rick Springfield, Air Supply, Carrot Top and the Little River Band have appeared there.

The bar has solid wood flooring with decorative resin bar tops and hand-crafted doors.

The four columns of the bar were formed by molds that hold more than 10,000 bottle caps.

The casino also includes a broadcast center for local DJs and outside groups, as well as a buffet, deli and the fine-dining Woodfire Grille, featuring fire pits.

The Diamond Jo does not have a hotel because there was no space along the waterfront to build one, but it has agreements for more than 300 rooms with three hotels nearby.

Harold Walker, 60, drives 90 minutes from Cedar Rapids to visit the casino twice a week. He has gambled in Louisiana and Las Vegas and is dedicated to the Diamond Jo for its gambling and catfish dinner in the buffet.

"I like this one. I really do. I like the layout," he said.

"If you're thinking about a place down there you got to have good people," casino customer Rich Michel said. "You don't have good people, you might as well not even open."

Michel, a real estate broker from Dubuque who visits the Diamond Jo three or four times a week, said the friendly and service-oriented employees are the casino's strength.

"There's other casinos in the area but they don't have the people," he said.

Art and Louise Whitford are an older couple who drive 60 miles from their farm in Wisconsin to the Diamond Jo two or three times a week.

"It's just a place to hang out," said Louise Whitford, who often comes for shows in the Mississippi Moon Bar and brings 20 to 40 dollars to gamble. "It's a very, very nice place. Lots of atmosphere, and friendly people."

Rejuvenating the waterfront

Peninsula's investments in the casino helped clean up a downtown waterfront that had consisted of abandoned, broken-down buildings and vacant storage tanks after the city's manufacturing base collapsed in the early 1980s.

"It wasn't a place you'd go any time during the night or day," said Michael Van Milligen, Dubuque's city manager.

Peninsula Gaming's investment in the casino and other projects helped galvanize a rebirth of the waterfront, which now includes a museum and aquarium, convention center, riverwalk, hotel, indoor water park, amphitheater and McGraw- Hill's higher education headquarters.

The casino donated cash and property to help the aquarium expand, and financed the construction of a 1,100-space city-owned parking facility for the new waterfront amenities.

More businesses have followed with the development of the waterfront.

Formerly reliant on John Deere and a manufacturing plant, the area has diversified into tourism, publishing, health care and financial services.

In the past two years, IBM opened a global services technology center with 1,300 employees in a newly renovated downtown building, and Hormel built a $90 million food packaging plant with plans to hire up to 550 people.

In the recession of the early 1980s, Dubuque led the nation with 23 percent unemployment. In the past two years, during the most recent recession, unemployment was about 6.8 percent.

Forbes Magazine and Moody's forecast Dubuque as one of the top 10 cities in the nation for job growth through 2013.

The Diamond Jo used to pay the city a per-patron tax of 50 cents, but it agreed to a fixed annual payment of $500,000 because the city wanted a consistent form of revenue, Van Milligen said.

The casino also gave $50,000 a year for nine years to help establish and sustain the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque.

The foundation opened in 2003 and has grown its assets to more than $25 million. Last year it gave $2.1 million in grants to nonprofits in a four-county area.

The Diamond Jo has a marketing partnership with the Mystique, a nonprofit, city-owned casino and dog track just up the river; it is run by the Dubuque Racing Association. The association redistributes funds from both casinos to the community through grants.

The Diamond Jo contributes 4.5 percent of its gambling revenue to the association annually. That amounted to more than $3 million last year, according to Diamond Jo officials.

Gambling dollars given to the city are reinvested in infrastructure, parks and recreation, industrial property and downtown redevelopment, said Rick Dickinson, executive director of Greater Dubuque Development Corp.

"All the positives the community anticipated from gaming have been realized, and the negatives that always come with the debate on gaming have not been realized," Dickinson said.

Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol said he originally had concerns about the Diamond Jo.

"It was new ground, but it got worked out and today they're partners. It's turned out to be a tremendous asset," he said.

In Iowa, counties with casinos must vote every eight years to reauthorize casino gambling. On the most recent Election Day in Dubuque, 81.3 percent of voters approved gambling at the Diamond Jo.

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