The genesis of what was to become Prairie Meadows was a result of some hard times for Iowa’s agricultural economy in the early 1980s.
It was during this time that several local businessmen had a vision for a business concept that would help to stem the tide of bad news – a concept that would involve the creation of jobs, economic development, a boost to Iowa’s agriculture, and the growth of tourism in central Iowa. That vision was the development of a racetrack in central Iowa. After all, Iowans had been taking their entertainment dollars out of state for a long time to the AKSARBEN track in Omaha. Why couldn’t central Iowa provide its own track and keep those dollars working for our economy?
In July 1984, the Iowa Racing Commission issued the state’s first pari-mutuel license that would allow for the construction of a horse track. A 243-acre site of pastureland adjacent to Adventureland Amusement Park in eastern Polk County was selected as the location for this new venture.
Eventually, the Polk County Board of Supervisors voted to back the $40 million in bonds that was necessary to build the track. And on March 1, 1989, live horse racing officially opened at Prairie Meadows with cold temps, flurries, and fogged-over windows that made watching the races just a little bit difficult.
But over the next few years, revenues at the track were not sufficient enough to keep it operational, especially with the growth of riverboat casinos gaming that attracted more and more of Iowans’ entertainment dollars. Eventually, backers of casino gaming at Iowa’s pari-mutuel facilities worked to get a bill approved in the Iowa legislature – and in 1994, the bill was approved by one vote and signed into law by Governor Terry Branstad.
In May 1994, Polk County voters approved the county referendum in favor of adding slots at Prairie Meadows by a margin of 62-38 percent. A key decision early on was one that opted for local management of this new casino/racing venture. It was determined that with the right people in place, Prairie Meadows could be managed locally, overseen by an unpaid board of directors who lived and worked here in central Iowa. That decision in 1994 has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of profits remaining in Iowa and in the local community – profits that would have left the state if an outside management firm had taken over the day-to-day operations of Prairie Meadows.
On April 1, 1995, a capacity crowd of 15,000 poured through the doors of the nation’s first combination horse track and slot machine casino. The addition of slots met with such unprecedented success that this unorthodox but highly successful public/private partnership allowed Prairie Meadows to repay nearly $90 million of debt to Polk County in just 18 short months. Since then, a lot of jackpots have been paid out. But the real winners are every resident of central Iowa.
Throughout our history, those who have dedicated their efforts to the betterment of the project and to the betterment of Polk County faced a lot of challenges, but they were always prepared to take the time and provide the resources necessary to make this unique project successful. The Prairie Meadows story is like no other.
In the span of more than 25 years, we’ve built a beautiful facility – section by section. Today we offer our guests a 168-room hotel, state-of-the-art guest amenities, a 2,000 slot machine casino, table games, live and simulcast horse racing, concerts, restaurants and lounges, and a guest service program that is second to none.
As a non-profit, locally managed operation, we’ve given more than $1 billion through taxes, grants and charitable donations to the state of Iowa and to thousands of worthwhile charitable organizations that do so much for our communities. More than $500 million has remained right here in central Iowa. And throughout the span of nearly three decades, one common thread has remained consistent throughout – that Prairie Meadows be a catalyst for jobs, economic development, agriculture and tourism.
Prairie Meadows is the result of a complete community volunteer effort, thanks to the commitment of so many people. Volunteers, business leaders, elected officials, and hundreds of others have been instrumental in the development and continued success of one of the great public/private business experiments in the entertainment industry.