Tom Coates and Gary Kirke have a few things in common. Both are conservative Republicans. Both are successful businessmen. Both have strong opinions. They even work out at the same fitness center.
Where they differ, in a big way, is on whether Greater Des Moines needs another casino, in this case a proposed $160 million casino, hotel and convention center that, with little question, would bring jobs, tax revenue and a percentage of casino receipts into Warren County, which is fighting for every good dollar it can get.
That was reflected in campaign contributions to forces supporting and opposing a May 7 ballot referendum in which voters will decide whether gaming should be allowed in their county.
Kirke’s Wild Rose Entertainment LLC, the company that would operate the casino, has contributed $260,897 to Warren County Citizens for Good Jobs, the campaign committee that supports the project, according to reports filed Thursday. Wild Rose, which by and large has remained in the background of the pro-casino efforts, agreed to pay campaign costs, providing proponents took charge of the campaign.
Coates has contributed $1,000 to NocasiNoWarren, the group that opposes the project. His Consumer Credit of Des Moines also loaned the campaign $4,000. Coates said he might forgive $1,000 of that amount if the group needs the cash. And it might. Opponents reported that they had raised $15,930, according to its campaign finance report that also was filed Thursday.
The campaigns also differ in how the money has been spent. Warren County Citizens for Good Jobs has leaned heavily on Greater Des Moines and national consultants to take the campaign to residents, who have received multiple mailings in recent weeks extolling the benefits of having a portion of gambling revenues given to schools, local governments and nonprofit organizations.
NocasiNoWarren raised its money from individuals and businesses and its spending has gone primarily to individuals, including a campaign co-chairwoman, for yards signs and printed material.
The anti-casino campaign also has leaned heavily on Coates, who has gained notoriety his family-operated, nonprofit credit counseling company.
The campaign is somewhat personal to Coates. The proposed casino – even if the referendum passes, state regulators must approve a license – would sit on 92 acres near Iowa Highways 5 and 28, a location that Coates said is about smack dab between his business on 63rd Street in Des Moines and his home in Norwalk.
“It almost makes me feel like they are targeting me. I know they’re not,” he said.
Coates does not want a casino in his backyard or any backyard. He has become a go-to guy in the state anti-gambling movement, and he has been summoned to testify on a national stage about what he says are evils of gambling.
It should be noted that his opposition focuses on commercial casinos, which he likens to opium dens, with gambling resulting in an addiction among some people that destroys lives. He is a strident opponent of Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino. Coates said he does enjoy a friendly game of low-stakes poker among family or friends every now and then.
Still, Coates opposition to gambling takes on a religious pitch. He has said that he feels God’s presence in his campaign against the Warren County casino.
“Now I am feeling Him as much as I have felt Him at any time,” Coates said during a videotaped presentation March 24 at Harvest Church in Cumming.
It was also during that speech that Coates struck a theme that has been carried by anti-casino opponents - that Wild Rose could place the casino in any backyard in the country if it saw fit and is simply using the option to buy the Norwalk land as a ruse.
“There is no doubt that we are being lied to,” about where the casino would land, Coates said at Harvest Church.
It is true that the Warren County referendum is simply on whether to allow gaming in the county. It has nothing to do with specific location.
The location issue arose during a locker room conversation between Coates and Kirke at Prairie Life Fitness Center in West Des Moines. Both men agree that Coates told Kirke he would have trouble locating the casino at the Norwalk property because it is too close to Des Moines International Airport.
An architect’s rendering shows a 10-story casino hotel, which might or might not violate Federal Aviation Administration guidelines for the proximity of buildings of a certain height near airport runways.
Their conversation became the subject of email that Coates sent to Norwalk Mayor Doug Pierce, but was then circulated among city officials and others interested in the casino project.
In email, Coates says that Kirke “told me directly once the vote was passed he’d put it wherever he wanted. Then asked me where I’d put it. You are being used as useful idiots …”
KIrke disputed Coates account, and told the Business Record that if the proposed location was a problem he would redesign the hotel or look for a suitable location.
Tom Timmons, vice president of operations for Wild Rose, said the height question is distraction to the overall question of whether the county should have a casino. The architect’s drawing was a concept. He said that if the hotel needs to be less than 10 stories, it can be designed to suit FAA standards.
He noted that Wild Rose hotels at its casinos in Clinton and Emmetsburg are four stories or less.
Timmons also expressed some frustration with Coates and casino opponents, saying that he hasn’t seen a campaign that has become more focused on personal issues than on more substantial issues during his 24 years in the casino industry.
“I don’t tell him how to run his business … we’re only asking voters approval to go to the next step. It isn’t like gaming isn’t in the state of Iowa, it is here. Gaming is a big part of the Iowa business structure right now and it isn’t going anywhere,” Timmons said.
And the location issue and the controversy it has generated might be a moot point, anyway.
Don Smithey, executive director of the Des Moines International Airport, said that he has seen nothing in the casino proposal that suggests it is in a bad location.
“They’re far enough away from us that it shouldn’t be an issue,” Smithey said. “Whatever they would propose to build, we would take a look at it. It is the FAA’s decision, not ours, but my understanding is that there is no problem.”
Or, as Coates put it, “The whole issue could be moot after Tuesday (May 7).”