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DUBUQUE GREYHOUND PARK AND CASINO

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Dubuque Greyhound Park
Pin indicating support of dog racing in Dubuque. Image courtesy: Kendall C. Day Family Collection
DUBUQUE GREYHOUND PARK AND CASINO. Opening on June 1, 1985, Dubuque Greyhound Park became the nation’s first nonprofit greyhound track. The facility was owned by the City of Dubuque and operated under the guidance of the DUBUQUE RACING ASSOCIATION, a volunteer board comprised of 21 directors. Profits from the race track went to the City and area charitable organizations, and pari-mutuel and gaming taxes provided revenue for the city, county, and state.

In 1984, the Iowa State Legislature passed the Pari-mutuel Wagering Act which opened Iowa to greyhound and horse racing. At the same time that the legislation was being discussed, a Dubuque group was formed to assess the potential for a racetrack in the community. Originally a part of the Chamber of Commerce Convention and Visitors Bureau, the group became independent and incorporated as the Dubuque Racing Association. With its membership designed to include persons representing a broad base of local interest, the organization drafted bylaws that mandated a nonprofit status and included a rule to ensure that no member would receive compensation or personal benefit from the development of a racetrack.

After the group completed an extensive feasibility study, the prospect of a greyhound racetrack in Dubuque was taken to the voters. An April 1984 referendum asked the citizens to approve a $7.9-million general-obligation bond to be used as the major source of funding for the racetrack. The general-obligation bond would place the burden of the responsibility for the track’s success upon the citizens themselves. A successful track would mean a new source of city revenue; a failure would ensure an automatic increase in property taxes.

On April 24, 1984, Dubuque voters overwhelmingly approved a $6.5 million bond referendum for the construction of a greyhound-racing track. With 60 percent needed for passage, the measure received a stunning 71 percent approval with 11,959 voting for and 4,992 opposed to the project. The referendum was the largest in Dubuque history.

Following the successful vote, track officials were faced with filing the application for Dubuque's racing license. Hundreds of pages long and over one-inch thick, the document was hand delivered by Terry HARRMANN and Arnold N. HONKAMP to the offices of the Iowa Racing Commission in Des Moines to meet the June 1 deadline.

The Commission spent six weeks studying eastern Iowa applications from Cedar Rapids (which also sought a horse-racing license), Dubuque, and Waterloo. The announcement that Dubuque would receive the first license came on July 18, 1984. One week later the Commission awarded Dubuque the lucrative summer racing schedule.

Groundbreaking ceremonies were held in late August, putting the facility on a rapid nine-month construction schedule. With a target opening date of June 1, 1985, the first construction contract was awarded by the City Council on July 30, 1984. Two weeks later the Council received the shocking news that construction costs had soared from $8 million to $10.1 million resulting in the City needing to borrow an additional $1.4 million in bonds. During the fall of 1984, the Dubuque Racing Association named the Dubuque track and hired Roy Berger as general manager. Berger, then the general manager of a track in Tucson, Arizona, was the youngest dog track manager in the United States.

Collector's round.
Collector's round.
Collector's round.
Collector's round.
Collector's round.
Surpassing Job Service of Iowa estimates of 4,000, a total of 5,750 people applied for three hundred track jobs in April 1985. The first greyhounds began training at the facility on May 7.

On June 1, 1985, Dubuque Greyhound Park opened its doors for the first time.

In May of 1991, the Dubuque Racing Association placed $2.7 million of the original $7.9-million in general-obligation bonds plus interest, used to finance the construction of Dubuque Greyhound Park into an escrow account with AMERICAN TRUST AND SAVINGS BANK. On May 22, 1991 the park celebrated the retirement of its debt with a "Thank You Dubuque Night" with free parking and general admission. The first 2,000 customers also received a commemorative wallet. Each contained a coupon for a hot dog, popcorn or soda; an admission pass for the future; and a coupon for use in the gift shop. Some wallets also contained cash. Dubuque Greyhound Park became the first debt-free pari-mutuel facility in the state of Iowa. (1)

Dubuque Greyhound Park's first contributions to the City of Dubuque and tri-state charities totaled $600,000 of which the city's share was $450,000.

By 1992 Dubuque and Waterloo greyhound tracks were in a highly contested race with losing seasons the previous year. Dubuque representatives wanted the Commission to let the tracks operate on six-month seasons with no over-lap. They also believed Waterloo had accepted its license on the premise of winter racing dates. It would cost Dubuque an estimated $800,000 to winterize its track. (2) In 1993 Waterloo appealed to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission to be allowed to have year-round live racing. On February 3, 1993 after seven hours of testimony by track officials, lawyers, and experts, the Commission by a 3-2 vote awarded Waterloo their request. (3) This was linked, however, to the Legislature providing additional money for regulating the longer season. (4) Dubuque officials said it would be difficult to compete with Waterloo because kennel owners would have a larger purse to stay there year-round. (5) Of the sixteen kennels which had raced in Dubuque in 1992, six were very doubtful of returning to Dubuque and efforts to advertise in national publications had received no response. (6)

When the Iowa Legislature did not provide the additional money, Waterloo officials pledged $65,000 to remain open. Faced with low attendance and profits, they later ended their racing season on May 31 and paid only half the amount originally promised. (7)

In July 1993, Dubuque track officials announced plans to reduce their racing reason by about 15% for the following year. It planned to ask the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission for a 22 week live racing season, the shortest ever held at the track, and approval to broadcast races from Bluffs Run in Council Bluffs year-round. Thoughts of simulcasting a shorter season were rejected in consideration of keeping employees on the payroll longer and other direct and indirect community benefits. (8)

Reflecting the changing environment of Iowa's gambling industry, in August 1993 the DRA chose to eliminate the position of executive director. The job had been created in 1990 to oversee riverboat gambling and had been filled by Dubuque attorney Sidney Blum. In 1992 Dubuque Greyhound Park and Casino had lost $850,000 although income from riverboat operations had resulted in a profit of $522,000. Betting and attendance at the track in 1993 had been below estimates and no income had come in from riverboat gambling since the DUBUQUE CASINO BELLE had left. (9)

The Dubuque City Council responded to the bad news concerning the local track by waiving the $40,000 rent for 1993 and the $120,000 annual payment to a rainy-day fund to allow the track to offer better purses to the kennels. (10) Track officials also proceeded with establishing simulcast during live racing. (11) The first opportunity for Dubuque residents to bet on races broadcast from Council Bluffs occurred on March 3, 1993. (12)

Despite the poor performance and then closing of three of Iowa's riverboats in 1992, legislation to relax gambling regulation repeatedly failed. Riverboat gambling, according to many, had been successful in promoting tourism and was never intended to become an industry. Despite setbacks, pressure continued from riverboat owners to lift betting/loss limits and space restrictions. These people were joined by parimutuel racetrack owners who wanted slot machines and Iowans who generally favored less restriction. Concerns about the effects of gambling eventually led the Iowa House to approve the new legislation by a 51-49 vote. Before gambling laws could be eased, local approval was required in counties where riverboats and racetracks were operated.

One of the more unique solutions proposed was offered by the Omaha tribe of Nebraska. It offered to operate the casinos at the state's racetracks. In exchange, the tribe would give the state ten percent of their on-reservation gambling revenue. Each track would lease space from the tracks. Each track receive lease income and ten percent of the gross income. The state would receive twenty percent of on-track casino revenue. The tribe would not expand its current number of reservation casino games and the state would limit expansion of gambling. (13)

The proposal held no interest for Dubuque DRA officials who felt the solution was slot machines. The DRA also had a contract with the Greater Dubuque Riverboat Entertainment Company that gave it the first right to manage any casino operation. Dubuque officials noted that the Omaha proposal would mean about $30 million in revenue to the state which was about what was projected for placing slot machines at the track. (14)

A special committee of the Iowa Legislature recommended in October, 1993 that major restrictions be taken out of Iowa's gambling laws and rejected a proposal that Iowans vote on the matter before any changes were done. Changes proposed included eliminating betting limits on riverboat casinos from the current $5 per play and $200 nightly loss limit. (15) Racetracks benefited from new legislation in 1994. Tracks were permitted to have slot machines and operate 24 hours daily--the legislature later allowed table games as well--as long as the tracks subsidized dog and horse racing from casino revenues. (16) Simulcasting at Dubuque Greyhound Park generated more than $1.7 million between October, 1993 and February, 1994. (17) In 1996 the total parimutuel revenue at Iowa three tracks was $18.8 million. Slot machine revenue, however, for the same period was $257.6 million.

In the first year, local slot machine revenue far exceeded projections. This was in line with a study the DRA had done in 1993. That study by the Racing Resource Group Inc. of Alexandria, Virginia predicted total gross gambling revenue would reach as high as $101 million for the four state tracks if slot machines were introduced. (18) In 1996, the machines brought in over $20 million in adjusted gross receipts (the amount wagered minus winnings paid) well above the estimated earnings of $12 million. The state received close to $3.5 million in gaming and admission taxes with the City of Dubuque and Dubuque County each receiving more than $100,000 in taxes.

The City of Dubuque also received an estimated $1.5 million in lease payments from the racing association, equal to one-half percent of the coins put into the machines. These figures did not include the distribution the racing association made at the end of its fiscal year. The distribution, from excess revenue, was divided with half going to the city, one-quarter to charity, and one-quarter to a racing association reserve fund.

During the 1996 racing reason, employment reached an estimated 340 people with a $4.4 million payroll. The casino generated over $1 million in pursue money for greyhounds.

In January 1998 the Dubuque Racing Association voted to expand the casino within the track to make room for 45 more slot machines. This brought the total number of the machines up to 600, the maximum allowed by the agreement with the owners of the Dubuque Diamond Jo Casino. (19)

Gambling token

In February, 2009 Dubuque Greyhound Park and Casino announced that it would be changing its name to Mystique. The change in name was part of a $10 million overhaul to help the facility compete with the larger DIAMOND JO CASINO. Mystique would offer 1,000 slots, 18 tables, a poker room and dog track. New offerings included Champagne, a new steak house; Bon Appetit, a buffet; Encore, a stage for live entertainment; The Cabaret at Mystique, an entertainment venue; and the Rendezvous Bar.

In December, 2013 the members of the Dubuque City Council announced that they would formally ask state legislators to remove the greyhound dog racing requirement from the Mystique Casino. Where greyhound racing in 1985 had aided the city in its economic recovery, the industry had become a cost. Net income at the track peaked at $2,738,093 in 1988, but fell into a deficit in 1992 and never recovered. A gag order included in a contract with greyhound kennel owners had prevented officials from lobbying against the industry for five years. (20) That agreement not to lobby was renewed in 2011. (21) In 2012 the Dubuque Racing Association had spent nearly $4.5 million to subsidize racing. The DRA had diverted over $55 million from charitable organizations and the city's capital projects fund over the last thirty years. (22)

In May 2014 Governor Terry Branstad signed into law a measure that allowed Mystique Casino to ease out of greyhound racing operations at the end of 2014 but allowed an industry group to continue races at the track. Under the new law, Mystique Casino paid a $7 million settlement over seven years to the greyhound industry. The Iowa Greyhound Association had the opportunity to lease the track and operate races starting in 2015. (23)

The gambling industry in Dubuque witnessed another year-over-year decline in revenue from 2013-2014. Revenue at Mystique fell by 14.8% while the Diamond Jo experienced a 14.1 percent decline. Decreases were higher in markets close to Illinois and Wisconsin. (24)

As 2014 ended, the Iowa Greyhound Association announced that it would not be offering simulcasting in January and February, 2015. Simulcasting would resume on March 6, 2015 with live racing expected to begin in early April. (25)

In February 2015 Dubuque government officials announced that the city would be facing a second year of a multi-million budget deficit. City Manager Michael VAN MILLIGEN stated that the city had lost nearly $24 million over the past eight years because of declining gaming revenues. (26) The trend was expected to continue. To fight the shortfall, the manager recommended employment cuts and fee increases including a 173% increase in fees to landlords. (27)

In September the dog race park in Council Bluffs announced it was closing its doors leaving the one in Dubuque to soon be the only one in the state. Managers said competition from casinos was the cause. As for the track's future, under a current bill, the greyhound park in Dubuque was getting help from state funds to stay afloat. They had seven years to figure out how to make profit on their own. (28)

In December 2015 concerns about declining revenues at Mystique Casino led the Dubuque Racing Association board of directors to reduce Mystique's corporate contribution to United Way of Dubuque to $75,000 down from $87,930 for the 2014-15 campaign. It was also announced that the City of Dubuque and Mystique had paid consulting organization Cunningham Group $10,000 to develop a master plan for CHAPLAIN SCHMITT ISLAND. The plan included possible rental, housing and recreational opportunities including the construction of a 6,000-seat baseball stadium. (29)

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Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

See: MYSTIQUE COMMUNITY ICE CENTER

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Source:

1. Webber, Steve. "DGP Offers 'Thank You Dubuque Night'" Telegraph Herald, May 21, 1991, p. 3A

2. Bergstrom, Kathy. "DRA Readies for Battle on Dog Track Season," Telegraph Herald, February 2, 1993, p. 3A

3. Bergstrom, Kathy. "Panel OKs Year-Round Racing at State Tracks," Telegraph Herald, February 4, 1993, p. 1

4. Bergstrom, Kathy. "DGP to Seek Shorter Season," Telegraph Herald, July 7, 1993, p. 3A

5. Bergstrom, Kathy and Arnold, Bill. "It's a Different World for Gaming in Dubuque," Telegraph Herald, February 4, 1993, p. 1

6. Bergstrom, Kathy. "Kennels Indecision Leaves DGP in Limbo," Telegraph Herald, February 11, 1993, p. 3A

7. Bergstrom, "DGP to Seek Shorter Season."

8. Ibid.

9. Bergstrom, Kathy. "Exec Axed," Telegraph Herald, August 11, 1993, p. 1

10. Arnold, Bill. "It's a Dog Fight," Telegraph Herald, February 12, 1993, p. 1

11. Bergstrom, Kathy. "DGP Explores Simulcast," Telegraph Herald, February 12, 1993, p. 3A

12. Bergstrom, Kathy. "Simulcast Betting Tonight," Telegraph Herald, March 3, 1993, p. 3A

13. Bergstrom, Kathy. "Wentworth Downplays Tribal Track Solution," Telegraph Herald, October 20, 1993, p. 2A

14. Ibid.

15. "Gambling Panel: Laws Must Change," Telegraph Herald, October 23, 1993, p. 1

16. Murphy, Erin and Jacobson, Ben. "On Their Last Leg?" Telegraph Herald, March 23, 2014, p. 2

17. Bergstrom, Kathy. "DGP Simulcasting Revenue $1.7 Million," Telegraph Herald, February 9, 1994, p. 2A

18. "Slot Machines Would Benefit Iowa Tracks," Telegraph Herald, October 18, 1993, p. 3A

19. Bergstrom, Kathy. "Racing Association Moves to Add 45 Slot Machines," Telegraph Herald, January 20, 1998, p. 3A. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19980120&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

20. Murphy

21. Ibid.

22. Jacobson, Ben. "City: Greyhound Racing Can Go," Telegraph Herald, December 6, 2013, p. 1

23. Murphy, Erin. "Branstad OKs Greyhound Plan," Telegraph Herald, May 31, 2014, p. 1

24. Montgomery, Jeff. "Dubuque Gaming Industry Takes 14% Hit," Telegraph Herald, July 16, 2014, p. 3A

25. Jacobson, Ben. "Simulcast Racing to Go on Hiatus," Telegraph Herald, December 31, 2014, p. 1A

26. "Dubuque Faces Mult-Million Dollar Deficit," KWWL Online, February 17, 2015

27. Ibid.

28. Descorbeth, Shirley. "Iowa Greyhound Park in Dubuque Trying to Stay Afloat," August 30, 2015, KWWL.com. Online: http://www.kwwl.com/story/29918254/2015/08/30/iowa-greyhound-park-in-dubuque-trying-to-stay-afloat

29. Montgomery, Jeff. "DRA Divided About Donations?" Telegraph Herald, November 18, 2015, p. 1A

Dubuque Greyhound Park and Casino, http://cicotello.com/Pictures%20and%20Information/USA/States/Iowa/Cities/D-L/Dubuque/Dubuque%20Greyhound%20Park%20&%20Casino/Dubuque%20Greyhound%20Park%20and%20Casino.htm

Nichols, Mark W. "History and Deregulation of Riverboat Gambling in Iowa and Illinois," Journal of Gambling Studies, online:www.business.unr.edu/faculty/.../cross%20border%20substitution.pdf