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Casinos deal Council Bluffs a new hand

By Carroll Communications, courtesy Travel Iowa

With a tumble of dice and a swirl of the slots, Council Bluffs, Iowa, took a gamble on a better future in the mid-1990s. Now, 15 years after casinos arrived in this town of 62,000 directly across the Missouri River from Omaha, Neb., the payoff is apparent.

The city’s three casinos draw an estimated 10 million visitors a year. Combined, they make Council Bluffs the state’s dominant gaming destination and one of the top 20 gaming destinations in the country.

As the casinos brought more people to town, developers of all types of tourist-related enterprises took note. Development was further spurred by the opening in 2002 of the Mid-America Center, or MAC, the trademarked acronym of the city’s convention complex.

Entertainment district emerges

Since the casinos and the convention center arrived, limited-service hotels have sprung up, well-known restaurant chains have taken a chance on the city, and multiple shopping venues have opened. Near the Horseshoe Casino and the MAC, an entertainment district has emerged, with a 16-screen movie theater; a Bass Pro Outdoor World; new hotels; popular chain restaurants like Quaker Steak and Lube; and an indoor kart track.

Another somewhat unexpected improvement brought by the casinos is public art.

The Iowa West Foundation, funded by fees paid by casino operators, has brought sculptures to the Council Bluffs landscape, especially at the MAC, where visitors are greeted by William King’s monumental metal sculpture of a farm couple — sodbusters, as he calls them — striding through the lawn and Jun Kaneko’s sculpture garden of 21 colorfully decorated shapes on pedestals.

Iowa West Public Arts’ impact is also seen in Bayliss Park, a restored 2.5-acre green space in downtown Council Bluffs. There, Brower Hatcher’s mod fountain, Wellspring, is a cooling-off spot and his Greek-inspired pavilion with modern touches, Oculus, is a stage for musicians and other performers. Iowa West’s goal is for Council Bluffs to be well known for public art by 2015.

MAC gets rave reviews

The collection of art enhances a convention and event facility that already gets raves from visitors. Josee Beier, director of convention sales for the Council Bluffs CVB, sometimes forgets that the MAC is about to celebrate its 10th year. “When you walk inside, it looks brand-new,” she said.

Its layout is streamlined and sensible, said Barbara Peterson, executive director of the Council Bluffs Public Library. She planned a conference for the Iowa Library Association there in 2007 and is bringing the statewide group back to the city in September.

No hikes required
“Some conferences I wonder if I will ever get to the meeting room or to the exhibit hall and will hike forever before reaching my destination,” she said. “There is none of that at the Mid-America Center. It is well laid out.”

The MAC is an arena and a convention facility. The arena, which seats up to 9,000 for concerts, has 30,000 square feet of column-free space. Conventions take advantage of a 24,000-square-foot exhibit hall and 42,300 square feet of meeting space, including two ballrooms, eight breakout rooms and 13,500 square feet of prefunction space.

The meeting space is on one floor, adjacent to the arena.

Peterson also finds the MAC, which is owned by the city and managed by SMG, well run. “I have attended conferences all over Iowa, the U.S. and internationally and I would say that the MAC ranks as one of the best that I have had a conference in.”

Although it is now overshadowed by Omaha, its looming neighbor to the west, Council Bluffs was founded first. In the 1800s, it was a boom town, where Mormon pioneers and gold prospectors packed up before they hit the trails that led west from there. It was also the eastern terminus for the Transcontinental Railroad. Its position on the river and in the middle of the country made Council Bluffs the fifth-largest rail center in the country in the 1800s.

Negative becomes a positive
Angie Kistaitis, director of sales at the MAC, grew up in Omaha, and remembers the negative view long attached to Council Bluffs.

“People used to say, ‘Why are you going to Council Bluffs?’” she said. “But that has changed now that we have the Mid-America Center and the casinos. I have heard so many people say that they would rather go to a concert at the MAC because they get more personalized service, parking is free and the staff is nice.”

Among the MAC’s selling points areits four surfaced parking lots, where parking is free.

“There is no charge for parking at any of the hotels or the convention center,” said Beier, “and that is a big deal. There are 2,000 spaces at the convention center alone.”

The center is also located near the intersection of major highways, interstates 29 and 80.

And, there are about 650 hotel rooms nearby, most in limited-service hotels, including the attached 133-room Country Inn and Suites, built shortly after the MAC was built.

Peterson’s 500 library conference attendees will stay in the Country Inn and Suites, a Hilton Garden Inn across the street from the Country Inn and attached to the Horseshoe Casino, a Springhill Suites, a Holiday Inn Express and two hotels a shuttle ride away — a Hampton Inn and a Holiday Inn, both attached to the Ameristar Casino.

Smaller meetings still opt for Harrah’s Casino, which has more than 12,000 square feet of meeting space and a 251-room hotel; and Ameristar Casino, with its 160-room, AAA Four Diamond hotel and 5,500 square feet of meeting space.

“There are more options for groups here,” said Beier. “If they don’t want to do the convention center they can do the casino properties and vice versa.”

The increase in options extends to after-hours entertainment and off-site venues. Bass Pro Shops lures outdoorsmen, but it also makes a nice place for lunch with its Uncle Buck’s Grill for burgers and beer. The store also develops educational programs for groups, according to store manager Duane Ebach.

“We can cater to what they are looking for,” he said. “We’ve given seminars on geocaching; we’ve done classes on fly fishing, where we take them outside to the pond and give lessons; we can give an orientation on handgun safety or even proper rainwear.”

Another way to add action to an event is to arrange an outing at Joe’s Karting. Opened two years ago in a concrete building across from the MAC, Joe’s is home to a 750-foot track with five turns where gas-powered carts capable of speeds up to 50 miles per hour are raced.

“The track record here is 53 miles per hour,” said Buddy Ray Jones, operations manager and an 18-year veteran of stockcar racing. “This is not what you can do at Six Flags or Worlds of Fun.”

Fortune 500 flock to track
The only indoor karting track in Iowa and Nebraska, Joe’s has drawn corporate groups from as far away as Texas and Minnesota. Major companies — Burlington Northern, Walgreens, NAPA and U.S. Bank among them — have booked team-building events there.

“We are dealing with almost every Fortune 500 in the Midwest,” said Jones.

The facility is so clean and grease-free that executives who show up in suits can race and leave with nary a speck of dirt or grease on their clothes and shoes, said Ray.

With a group of 20 to 30, Joe’s might have participants compete in several races of 16 laps each, then have the racers with the top eight times compete in a championship.

Even those who opt not to race get in on the action, by dropping the green flag, taking photos or simply cheering on the sidelines. Each race lasts about 10 minutes, and the experience is much like being a real racecar driver.

“From the time we drop the green flag to the checkered one it is almost like watching Talladega on TV,” said Jones.

Beyond the entertainment district, other attractions give a more complete picture of Council Bluffs.

Ten minutes north of town, Loess Hills Winery is a quiet place to sip German-style white wine on a patio and see the Loess Hills, an area of bluffs, terraces and ridges formed by glaciers.
“We have some of the best sunsets around,” said owner Larry Rohatsch.

The winery’s tasting room is small, with room for no more than 15, but two patios and a quarter-acre of open field make it possible to have larger events there.

Dodge House relays railroad past
Another venue with a view, the Historic General Granville Dodge House, sits on a hill where Dodge could view the city’s railroad lines and the Missouri River.

Seeing the trains come and go was more than a passing interest; Dodge was probably the greatest railroad builder who ever lived.

“He built, plotted, planned and surveyed over 100,000 miles of railroad, and not just in the U.S.,” said Kori Nelson, executive director of the historic mansion.

Dodge’s importance — he and Abraham Lincoln were fast friends — has made his house a National Historic Landmark.

Perhaps there would be no better place in Council Bluffs then to gather an organization’s leaders.

“Something we offer for smaller groups, of 10 or less, is a reception with wine and cheese in the library, a behind-the-ropes tour of the home and a dinner, with food served by waiters in the black-and-white uniforms of the day,” said Nelson.

Such a dinner, enjoyed in the former home of a forward-thinking American, could be a fitting end to a meeting in a town that seems well on its way to a brighter future.