Bill Gluba Jesus Aviles

Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba talks to Jesus Aviles, president of the Dubuque Racing Association, and Lori Thiel, chairman of the racing association board, on Tuesday while visiting the Mystique Casino. (Kevin E. Schmidt/Quad-City Times)

Kevin E. Schmidt

DUBUQUE — Davenport elected officials and community members got a primer on what a city-owned casino can do for a community on Tuesday with a bus trip to this northeast Iowa city’s two casinos.

Through the Dubuque Racing Association, the city has operated the Mystique Casino since it opened as a dog track in 1985. The casino has pumped more than $620 million into the local economy since then, according to Dubuque city manager Mike Van MilligenDubuque Racing Association board chairwoman Lori Thiel and its president, Jesus Aviles. The Diamond Jo Casino also operates in Dubuque.

The bus trip was a chance for members of Davenport’s Riverboat Development Authority, or RDA, and Davenport Community Improvement Corp. to see the Dubuque model first-hand.

The city is waiting for the RDA to vote on an operating agreement it negotiated, and six RDA board members were on Tuesday’s bus trip.

The Davenport Community Improvement Corp. will oversee operation of the city-owned casino once Davenport acquires the Rhythm City. The city is in the process of acquiring the Rhythm City from the Isle of Capri for $46 million. The city is considering three operator-developer proposals for a land-based casino.

Under the Dubuque model, the city’s property tax rate is $10.78 per $1,000 of assessed value, compared with Davenport’s tax rate of $16.78 per $1,000. The Dubuque Racing Association distributes gaming money through grants, a Future Fund that gives out grants of up to $500,000 for high-impact community projects, and an endowment fund. The racing association receives about 500 grant requests annually and meets most of them, Thiel said.

Bob Carr, a former state senator and Dubuque resident, was an interested bystander during the Davenport group’s visit. He fully supported Dubuque’s gaming plan and is in favor of what Davenport is trying to do.

“You’re sitting on a golden goose,” he said.

Mary Ellen Chamberlin, president of the RDA, said she was glad her board members got a chance to see what the Dubuque casino does for the community.

“I thought it was very interesting for those who haven’t been here before,” she said. “It gave them a chance to hear from the people who have done it.”

Mayor Bill Gluba is sold on what Davenport is trying to do and tries to sell the concept to everyone he can, pointing to Dubuque’s success and the $15 million the Mystique earned for the city in 2007. He listed increased revenue the RDA could distribute, potentially lowering property tax and spurring economic development as positives of a city-run casino.

“They made it clear to us we would be foolish not to get into this,” he said. “If we had $15 million, we could drop property taxes significantly or do a lot of other things.

“If we miss this opportunity, it would be a tragedy for our community for years to come.”

The visit confirmed Alderman Bill Edmond’s support. The 2nd Ward alderman called Davenport’s casino acquisition a “no-brainer.”

“We are doing the right thing,” he said. “You see it first-hand from the city of Dubuque.”

Kelli Grubbs, who chairs the Davenport Community Improvement Corp., asked more operational questions, dealing with debt and operational costs. She said her board still has more information to obtain regarding the development proposals.

“I think this gave us the idea of what questions we still need to ask in the operation of a casino,” she said.

“We need to work with our consultants and get a matrix so we can compare apples to apples,” she said referring leases, revenue projects and operational costs.

The Davenport group also included Greg Lundgren, president of Ryan Companies, which is part of Ingenus Consulting & Management’s casino development proposal. Ingenus representatives made their pitch to an interview panel on Monday, along with representatives of Atrium Holding Co. and Restoration St. Louis.

Aviles, who has been in gaming for 40 years, said the benefits to Dubuque of the Mystique operation are evident all over town, pointing to plaques denoting the Mystique’s assistance in firehouses and school libraries.

“You manage your own destiny,” he said. “You see money going back to the community again and again.

“I’m proud of this model,” Aviles said. “I’m surprised it doesn’t exist elsewhere.”