Iowa Group Sets Deadline For Prairie Purchase

By Dan Johnson
The Racing Association of Central Iowa gave itself two weeks to decide if it can put together a viable offer to purchase the Prairie Meadows property from Polk County.

The track's board of directors voted 10-0 with three absentees to explore the possibility of buying Prairie Meadows and will discuss its findings when it next meets on Oct. 24.

"We'll look at the legal and financial ramifications, and see what we can put together," said Jim Rasmussen, the racing association's chairman. "I don't think we can put together an offer by the 24th, but we will have something to present to our board."

The biggest question to be answered is whether the racing association can put together a format that makes it more attractive to the county to sell Prairie Meadows than to lease. The racing association has said that its income is shrinking as taxes and expenses rise.

"It's possible at the end of the day, we decide that we don't have a pool of money in which to make an offer," said Tom Flynn, the racing association's attorney "Our board doesn't know for sure what we'll end up with after we go through this process."

The track and casino are owned by Polk County while the facility is managed by the not-for-profit racing association, which has the gambling license.

Prairie Meadows has paid the county an average of $28 million a year in rent and profits, but with expenses and taxes rising, that total is expected to shrink starting next year. Two of five Polk County supervisors have said they favor selling the track, rather than to continue leasing the property.

However, none of the supervisors have said that they would sell Prairie Meadows for less than $150 million. Racing association members have said that Prairie Meadows' value has gone down since Circus Circus talked about paying $250 million up front for the facility in 1996.

"Given the financial position of the gaming industry today, there would be no way that they'd match that amount of money," racing association member John Lundberg said.

Another incentive for the county to sell may be to rid itself of the endless steam of controversy that Prairie Meadows seems to yield.

"Many of us in public service would like to deal with county government issues without the spectre of Prairie Meadows behind us on every step," assistant county manager Mark Stevens said. "It overshadows so much of what we'd like to focus on."

Talks over a 2003 rental contract with Polk County will be on hold while the racing association explores its buying options. Polk County Supervisor Nathan Brooks has said that he fears that sale talk will disrupt rental negotiations.

"Given the fact that we're coming back on the 24th shows that we're on a fast track to get this done either way," Lundberg said.