Council Bluffs Looks for Next Fight to Stop Ponca Tribe from Developing Competing Iowa Casino

Posted on: November 27, 2017, 04:00h. 

Last updated on: November 27, 2017, 04:07h.

The city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, hasn’t yet given up the fight to keep the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska from building a casino that would compete with the Midwestern gaming town.

Ponca Tribe of Nebraska
The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska is ready to build a casino in Carter Lake, Iowa, which has corporate casinos in nearby Council Bluffs crying foul. (Image: Omaha World-Herald)

Officials in Council Bluffs have vowed to appeal a recent decision by the National Indian Gaming Commission, affirming a 2007 designation that would give the tribe rights to develop a casino on their land in Carter Lake, Iowa.

Land Use Disputes

Council Bluffs City Attorney Dick Wade said such a venue would negatively affect the other three gambling properties that are less than 10 miles from the proposed site. He told the Omaha World-Herald that when the sovereign nation purchased the 4.8 acres in 1999 and put it into a trust four years later that its intended use was as a medical clinic.

“We don’t think the action of the Indian Gaming Commission is consistent with their rules and the way the land was originally put into trust,” Wade said.

Council Bluffs, along with the neighboring states of Nebraska and Iowa, filed a lawsuit against the commission’s first ruling in 2007. They contend that a lawyer for the tribe had agreed in 2003 not to develop the land for a casino.

A district court, however, found the oral agreement not binding and sided with the Ponca tribe. In 2010, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision and ordered the NIGC to review the land-use agreements for a second time.

That ruling body reaffirmed its original conclusion and again found in favor of the Ponca, which led to Wade’s announcement of exploring further legal action. He said the city council would meet this week to discuss how they would proceed further to prevent the development and protect Council Bluff’s gaming industry.

Unfair Competition?

The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission oversees the three nearby Ameristar, Harrah’s, and Horseshoe casinos. They pay a 26 percent tax on adjusted gross gaming revenue, an expense that would not apply to any new tribal casino, Wade said.

“They could easily have their machines set to pay out 5 to 10 percent more than the machines in an Iowa-regulated facility would have and still make more of a profit, which would draw gamblers away from Iowa casinos,” he said. “It’s not like it would be anywhere near an even playing field.”

Those three facilities generated $416 million in adjusted gross revenue last year, and paid approximately $85 million in taxes.

Larry Wright Jr., chairman of the 4,100-member Ponca tribe, said he was relieved that the decade-long legal battle was over and that his group could move forward with casino construction plans. The development as planned will have space for 2,000 slot machines and 50 table games, with a 150-room hotel. No cost has yet been disclosed.

Its location is what has Council Bluffs set on trying to stop it, and why Wright believes it will be a guaranteed success. To be located seven miles from downtown Omaha, the casino will be at the Iowa-Nebraska border and able to attract customers from both states.

Wright said he was not concerned with any future litigation and expects those opposed to respect the commission’s ruling.

“They have reaffirmed the tribe’s sovereign right to conduct gaming here,” he said. “We look forward to having a respectful and productive dialogue with the appropriate officials in Iowa.”