2013 was a big year in Greene County

Greene County residents had much to talk about in 2013, with slot machines, schools, Iowa weather, Sunday groceries and an expansion at Greene County Medical Center leading the list.

The lure of slot machines and additional revenue for Greene County non-profit organizations, towns and schools was the top story in the county in 2013. An Aug. 6 referendum on casino gambling passed by a three-to-one margin, with 75 percent of the votes cast in favor of the proposal and 25 percent against. The referendum passed in every precinct in the county, with voter turnout ranging from 45 to 64 percent in the various precincts.

The proposal for a gaming and entertainment complex in Jefferson was announced in early April. Grow Greene County, composed of members of the Greene County Development Corp and others, worked with West Des Moines-based Wild Rose Entertainment. Proponents projected the complex would provide 250 jobs, an annual payroll of $6.5 to $7 million, and more than $2 million each year to county non-profit organizations and local tax coffers.

No Casino Greene County formed to oppose the referendum, citing concerns for the wellbeing of county residents and questioning the balance of benefit vs detriment to the county.

More than $130,000 was spent on the campaign, according to the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board. Grow Greene County reported donations totaling $126,428. Of that, $123,195 was provided by Wild Rose Entertainment. The remaining $3,232 came from about 30 individuals and couples.

No Casino Greene County reported donations totaling $5,844 from 22 individuals.

The process of applying for a state gaming license began with the formation of the Grow Greene County Gaming Corp, with president Norm Fandel, Guy Richardson, Bob Allen, Lori Mannel, Peg Raney, Kate Neese, Brenda Muir, Mary Jane Fields and Mike Mumma. The Gaming Corp and Wild Rose Entertainment plan to submit an application in January to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission, with a decision expected in May or June.

If the license is approved, the $40 million casino resort will feature restaurants, a conference center, and a 70-room hotel with amenities. The 20,000-square-foot casino will offer 500  slot machines and 14 game tables, and the resort will offer entertainment and meeting facilities. Five percent of the adjusted gaming revenues, an anticipated $1.5 million per year, will be disbursed to non-profit organizations, cities, schools, etc for community betterment projects. A portion of that will be available for projects in contiguous counties.

The casino referendum was the second special election of the year for voters in the Jefferson-Scranton and East Greene school districts. Voters went to the polls Feb. 5 and approved the reorganization of the two districts into the Greene County Community School District.  In the J-S district the vote was 405 yes (89 percent)  and 50 no. The vote was 160 yes (87 percent) and 23 no in the East Greene district. Voter turnout was 10 percent in the J-S district and 16 percent in the East Greene district.

Declining enrollment in the two districts was the compelling reason for the reorganization. The districts were already in a whole grade sharing arrangement for grades 5-12 and shared some administrative staff.  The Iowa legislature provided financial incentives for sharing students and a three-year property tax reduction on the uniform tax levy.

The Greene County school board was organized in March with Sam Harding as president and Ashley Johnston as vice president. The reorganization is effective July 1, 2014.

Longtime Iowa State professor of ag climatology Ellwynn Taylor told the Jefferson Rotary Club on May 20 that 2012 was the start of a 25-year stretch of “diabolical” weather. He predicted the weather would be wet and cool through mid-July and that it wouldn’t rain after that. He was very close to being correct.

After drought conditions in 2012, Iowa farmers were pleased with rain in the spring. Jefferson received 10.76 inches of precipitation in May, including 1-1/2 inches of snow on May 3. Normal rainfall in May is 4.14 inches. The month ended with heavy rain over the Memorial Day weekend, with  more than 5 inches in Scranton. Gov Terry Branstad included Greene County on a list of flood disaster counties. Subsoil moisture levels at the end of May in west central Iowa were rated at 67 percent adequate and 24 percent surplus by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Rain continued in June, including the Saturday of the Bell Tower Festival. It was reported there was still corn to be planted the week ending June 23. The first week of July, subsoil moisture in the area was rated as 71 percent adequate and 27 percent surplus.

The rain stopped and soil moisture levels declined. For the week ending Aug. 18, the USDA reported less than normal rainfall for six of the previous seven weeks, with subsoil moisture ratings down to 31 percent very short, 49 percent short and only 20 percent adequate in west central Iowa. Jefferson received just .04 inch of rain in August, compared to the normal 3.84 inches. Crops that were planted later than normal didn’t fare well in the dry weather.

Rain finally returned the week ending Sept. 22, with the USDA reporting statewide average precipitation of 1.09 inches of rain, compared to the normal .77 inches. It was the wettest week in 12 weeks, the USDA reported.

The availability of groceries in the county on Sundays was another top story. Hy-Vee  announced plans in March to build a $6 million store in Jefferson. The 32,000-square-foot store will be built at the site of the former north grade school, facing south on Adams St between Wilson and Vine St. That block of Adams St will be closed to accommodate the project, and all buildings except the ISU Extension & Outreach office in the block north of Washington St between Wilson and Vine were razed.

The store is expected to have 40 to 45 fulltime and 100 to 120 part-time employees. The store will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The existing Hy-Vee Drugstore will move to the new location.

Groundbreaking was originally slated for late 2013, but delays in other company construction projects delayed the Jefferson project. Site preparation is complete, with groundbreaking anticipated for early spring. Hiring will begin after the groundbreaking.

Progress on a construction and renovation project at Greene County Medical Center rounds out the top five stories for 2013. The $22.5 million project includes 44,600-square-feet of new construction and renovation of nearly that much space. The new construction will be primarily to the east of the existing building.

Funding for the project comes from $18 million in direct and guaranteed loans from the USDA Rural Development’s community facilities program, a $2 million loan from Home State Bank, medical center assets, and a $4 million capital fund drive slated for early 2014. Groundbreaking for the project is anticipated for the spring of 2014, with completion in early 2016.

Stories to watch in 2014 include, in addition to the mentioned construction projects:

*Job creation: Greene County Development Corp executive director Ken Paxton has named 805 as the number of new jobs in Greene County in the next two years. Paxton is pursuing designation of Greene County as a Home Base Iowa community.

*The Greene County Community School board’s long range facilities planning committee is looking at options for attendance centers, including possible new construction at the high school in Jefferson to create a campus for grades 5-12.

*The Jefferson city council’s housing committee is looking at adopting  a uniform building code to enforce standards and inspection of rental and owner-occupied housing in the community.

*A possible welcome center at the Thomas Jefferson Gardens southeast of the courthouse square.

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