Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Casino Offers Research Opportunity

The Riverside casino offers a wonderful, but fleeting, opportunity for social service agencies, law enforcement, public policy centers, psychologists and other counselors, academics, journalists and public officials to substitute some hard data for speculation about the economic development -- and the social costs -- of gambling in general, and the new casino in particular.

There are lots of arguments for and against gambling casinos.

Do they bring tourist dollars to Iowa, or primarily just ship Iowans' dollars out of state? Will the casino's business with the projected million or more gamblers annually actually create increased revenue for Riverside's businesses, or drain dollars from them (and the surrounding counties) into the casino's gambling halls, hotel, restaurants and spa? What is the net impact on taxpayers -- taxes and other fees paid to local governments and non-profits by the casino, and the added costs for local infrastructure, TIFs, and law enforcement?

Will we see an increase in bankruptcies, domestic abuse, drunk driving and accidents along 218, levels of student loans and dropout rates, embezzlement and other theft, alcohol and drug abuse, suicides, and
in calls to "1-800-Bet's Off" and visits to counselors for gambling addiction and other related problems; or are those predictions just scare tactics, and the facts will turn out to be that casino patrons gamble only rarely, well within their means, and just for fun?

The reason I say the opportunity is fleeting is because, for the new data to be meaningful it will need to be compared with the old, with the trend lines over the last few years. That data needs to be pulled together now before it is contaminated with the impact of the casino -- starting this Thursday (August 31) when it opens.

Some of the most interesting, and valid, studies of the impact of television on society have involved this approach -- back in the years when it was possible. Societies that never had television could be studied before and after it was introduced. Clearly, ours is a society that has already felt the impact of gambling. But there is apparently some data indicating that distance does make a difference, that with more easily accessible casinos (i.e., the 15 miles/20 minutes from Iowa City to Riverside vs. Tama or Davenport) there will be an increase in the adverse social effects.

Now is our chance to test this theory. The benefits to all eastern Iowa institutions from this knowledge could be enormous. Hopefully those in the best positions to be putting together our benchmark statistics either already have them, because they are routinely collected, or they are busily putting them together.

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