DRA distributes $1 million in grants; new casino CEO takes helm

The Dubuque Racing Association Board of Directors on Tuesday approved more than $1 million in grant funding for local organizations.

During its monthly meeting, the board green-lighted $1,006,461 in funds for 93 nonprofits. The total is in line with the awards from last year, which were split into two allocations and totaled $1 million.

DRA Board Chairman Kevin Lynch said he was excited about the contribution, particularly after the struggles that Dubuque casinos have endured over the past year.

“The fact that we were able to do this after going through a year in which we were essentially closed for a couple months, it is a testament to the staff and the team,” he said. “I know the charities and nonprofits are thankful, and we are happy to do it.”

The DRA is the nonprofit license holder for both Dubuque casinos.

The grant awards highlighted a busy meeting, during which board members also welcomed the new president and CEO of Q Casino and Hotel.

Alex Dixon officially took over the position on Monday, just a couple of weeks after moving to Dubuque. Former President and CEO Jesus Aviles still is employed by the casino and will temporarily assist Dixon as he takes the reins.

Dixon said he was pleased that his first official meeting as the casino’s leader came at a time when the DRA was distributing funding to local organizations. He emphasized that these contributions are part of what drives Q Casino to succeed.

“The better the casino does, and the better the Diamond Jo does, the better our community does,” he said. “It is simply amazing to think about the impact the gaming industry has on the region.”

Fifty-seven of the 93 grant awards went to organizations in the city of Dubuque, and 91% of the dollars went to organizations within Dubuque County. Overall, nonprofits in 21 communities and three states — with Illinois and Wisconsin being the others — were approved for grants.

For many, the dollars are a major game-changer.

Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens received $20,000 that will help make its popular Japanese garden handicapped-accessible.

“It is probably our most popular garden, and one of our main goals is to make it accessible to everyone,” said Executive Director Sandi Helgerson.

The vision for the garden came from a Japanese designer, while volunteers spent about a decade building it. But Helgerson noted that visitors who use wheelchairs, or parents who try to bring their kids to the garden in strollers, often have a difficult time.

“About once a week, we get a call from someone asking if the garden is accessible,” she said. “It will be great to complete this project.”

A $20,000 grant for Crescent Community Health Center in Dubuque also will provide a major boost.

CEO Gary Collins said the funds will help the organization pay for new optometry equipment, reduce patients’ payments for specialty care visits and help clients pay for glasses and contacts.

“One of the biggest barriers our patients have is transportation,” he said. “Having more equipment here in our building helps eliminate that barrier.”

Collins believes the grant will help Crescent further develop its relatively new optical offerings.

“We started offering optometry services in May,” he said. “This is the next logical step in that program, and we are very excited about it.”

DRA Director of Grants Kathy Young said the number of applicants this year was slightly down.

“Many nonprofits are still unsure of what their future looks like,” she said. “I think some struggled to come up with a specific project or program or area of need, given that there are so many uncertainties right now.”

The pandemic’s impact on Dubuque casinos disrupted the standard timetable for the DRA’s grant process.

The previous year’s grant funding was disbursed through two separate allocations: in the fall of 2020 and during the winter. Young noted that this year’s grant cycle also was impacted, with nonprofits facing a consolidated application timeline that might have discouraged some from submitting proposals.

Dixon noted that strong financial figures in recent months suggest the grant funding could increase by the time 2022 rolls around.

The Dubuque market recorded gaming revenue of $11.65 million in July, up about 10.5% compared to the same month in 2019. Casino officials are generally using 2019 figures, the most relevant point of comparison to the current year, given the massive impact COVID-19 had on the market last year.

Q Casino reported gaming revenue of $4.68 million last month, up 11.6% compared to July 2019. Meanwhile, Diamond Jo brought in $6.97 million in July gaming revenue, up from $6.35 million during the same month two years ago.

“Things are going in the right direction,” Dixon said. “Now, it is time to pour some lighter fluid on the charcoal, just to keep things heating up.”

He emphasized that the 2022 game at Field of Dreams will be among the opportunities he seeks to seize upon. Major League Baseball recently announced it would return to the Dyersville field next year, with reports stating that it would be a matchup between the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds.

“The eyes of the nation will be on this area,” he said. “We have to put our best foot forward. And we have to think about how we take all those eyeballs that are focused on this area and convert that into foot traffic here.”