Prairie Changes Board to Combat Riverboat Casino

by Dan Johnson

Prairie Meadows' board of directors has unanimously passed a resolution that would change the makeup of its board in exchange for business support to oppose a Des Moines riverboat casino.

The July 21 resolution supported a compromise in which the Des Moines Partnership, a local business group, would add two non-voting members to the 13-person Racing Association of Central Iowa. The initial proposal was for the partnership, which already appoints one director, to add two more voting members. That rankled some RACI members who alleged it was an attempt by business leaders to control Prairie Meadows.

"The reason that this (compromise) came about was statements being made that this was a power grab by the Des Moines Partnership," said Ed Skinner, member of an ad-hoc committee that negotiated the resolution.

The resolution also calls for the track, partnership, and Polk County, which owns Prairie Meadows, to oppose additional casinos in central Iowa. One study estimates a Des Moines casino would cut Prairie Meadows' casino revenue by 40%. There is no guarantee the business group's support would doom a riverboat casino from becoming a reality.

The city of Des Moines, facing a budget crunch, is talking to groups about possible casinos. Riverboat interests have said they could provide the city with up to $8 million per year; Prairie Meadows has offered a deal where $5 million would go to Des Moines.

However, Skinner said if the track, partnership, and county reached agreement, it would make a Des Moines-area riverboat unlikely. "If the three of us come together as a unit, they can't pass a referendum in Polk County," Skinner said. "I don't think they will go forward with it."

In addition, the 13-person RACI board would elect five positions that currently are only voted upon by only five members. The five-person sub-group in RACI is the result of the changes in the board since RACI came out of bankruptcy in 1993. The 1993 board was made up of five people recruited by then-general manager Tom Timmons.

When Prairie Meadows' casino was added in 1995, the county and other community groups wanted a bigger say in the operation. The board was expanded to nine members and then to 13, with the original five RACI members electing themselves.

The proposed changes came about as part of a community task force that will examine how Prairie Meadows should expand as it adds table games. The push to change the board rankled some RACI members.

"The task force, in my opinion, gets an 'F' in diplomacy," RACI chairman Gary Lucas said. "The only thing I heard from the start was 'change the board.' I would have to support this as a movement to get us to that goal, when we can quit this stupid bickering like a bunch of kindergartners and get down to really taking care of business."

The previous two board changes were supposed to ensure RACI reflected the community, but it hasn't stopped Prairie Meadows from remaining a constant lightning rod of controversy.

"This won't end that, but I think it will cause us all to talk," RACI member Nolden Gentry said. "Hopefully, we can get ahead of some of that."