How Casino Money is Backing Parks and Trails in Iowa

You might not expect a lot of big place-making grants being thrown around in southwestern Iowa’s sleepy Pottawattamie County, but its conservation board just received $1.1 million for a recreational trail system. Not a bad chunk of cash, thanks to the regional Iowa West Foundation (and gambling).

The county is home to fewer than 100,000, just over half of whom live in the county seat of Council Bluffs, Iowa. Council Bluffs is also home to the Iowa West Foundation, a grantmaking foundation with some surprisingly deep pockets. Serving western Iowa and parts of eastern Nebraska, the funder has given an impressive $300 million since it started, holding around the same amount in assets, and giving around $25 million a year, all thanks to a shrewd arrangement with area gambling companies.

The foundation began operations in 1994, thanks to a series of laws passed in the state that required gaming licenses to be held or sponsored by nonprofits. Funds from such licenses granted to casino companies in the region, Ameristar and Harrah’s, make their way to the foundation, leading to some decent-sized grants to benefit the community. 

The latest round of grants from Iowa West totaled around $3 million, a third of which went to the trails program. The funder has backed county trail projects in the past, but mostly piecemeal, with this grant stepping up the investment. The original phase of funding will go toward a 16-mile paved trail connecting two towns in the county. The second phase will be another 13-mile stretch linking up a nature center in the region. Staff with the foundation said the trails grant should help the communities become more of a draw, but also benefit the towns’ health and wellness.

Iowa West puts the gambling money to a variety of community projects, including public art, education and historic preservation. But parks remain a large priority, both renovation and funding to create new spots, including a nice grant to Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park that opened in Council Bluffs this summer.  

Learn more about the funder and its gaming license funding mechanism here