CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Many Linn County voters have big concerns about what a casino could mean for the future of the city.
A Gazette/KCRG poll revealed that the number one reason for being against the building of a new casino was a concern for higher numbers of crime and social problems.
Mark Vander Linden knows problem gambling.
"We want to minimize the harms related to gambling," Vander Linden said.
He's the Director of the Office of Problem Gambling, Treatment and Prevention for the Iowa Department of Public Health. He's studied data as many casinos have opened over the years.
"Opening up a new casino, opening up a new gambling venue is going to be a significant temptation and it will cause problems for a certain number of individuals in the area that have a propensity towards becoming problem gamblers ... If you just take a look strictly at the data, it doesn't necessarily play out that we see these issues spinning out of control," said Mark Vander Linden.
Vander Linden pulled data about the number of calls placed to the 1800-BETSOFF hotline from counties around Waterloo when the Isle Casino opened in 2007. His numbers show a spike of calls prior to the opening. Vander Linden said that could be attributed to awareness of the hotline. Then there was an increase of calls just after the Isle Casino doors opened. After a couple years the calls level off.
"You may see an initial increase when a new gambling venue opens -- that there's uniqueness to it, that there's an excitement about it," Vander Linden said. "After people adapt to that, they go back to gambling at their old behaviors."
A 2011 University of Northern Iowa study shows about 300,000 Iowans have the potential to become problem gamblers. That's about one of every ten people.
Crime is another worry surrounding any new casino, but Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said he is not worried.
"We have checked with jurisdictions throughout the state that have casinos," Chief Jerman said. "We have not received any information to lead us to become concerned."
A University of Georgia study found counties with casinos have eight percent more crime than those without. The FBI Uniform Crime Report Data for cities in Iowa showed that property crimes actually dropped immediately after the casinos opened in Waterloo and Dubuque. Violent crimes, on the other hand, dropped in Dubuque and then steadily increased over the years. Waterloo saw a rise in violent crimes immediately after the Isle Casino opened.
Police, though, say it's impossible to attribute that rise or fall of crime to any one factor, including a casino.
"So, whether it's a new hotel or a casino or theater, we want people who visit it to feel safe or be safe," Chief Jerman said.
The referendum on whether to allow gambling in Linn County will be held on March 5.