SIOUX CITY | Before Sunday morning worship services, members of First Presbyterian Church gather for an hour of coffee and socializing.
The talk lately has turned to a subject that troubles many in the congregation: the prospect of having a Las Vegas-style casino as a neighbor.
The Gothic Revival church, with its pointed arched windows and battlements along the roofline of a tall bell tower, has stood at the northeast corner of Nebraska and Sixth streets since 1907. On the other side of Nebraska stands the former Warrior Hotel, the centerpiece of a proposed $122 million casino and entertainment complex.
The Warrior group, led by Ho-Chunk Inc., is one of three developers competing for a state license to open a land casino in Woodbury County.
First Presbyterian's governing body, called the session, has not taken a formal position on the Warrior proposal. Dr. Paul Johnson, a member of the session, said he has not spoken to anyone in the church who supports having a casino next door.
"Obviously, we're concerned about the effects it would have," said Johnson, who personally opposes state-sanctioned casino gambling.
The Rev. Matthew Miller, the church's pastor, addressed the topic in a recent newsletter to the congregation's more than 400 members.
Miller acknowledged his own misgivings about casinos, whose profits, he said, "are made from a morally problematic proposition."
"Games of chance prey upon the weakness of those who more often than not are the ones who can least afford to lose the money they put down," he wrote.
At the same time, Miller said he views the Warrior project as a potential opportunity for First Presbyterian to expand its ministry.
"Maybe it happens across from our street because God wants it to be there, to offer an alternative narrative of what's important," he said in an interview with the Journal.
Robbie Rohlena, a lifelong First Presbyterian member whose grandparents started attending the church in the 1920s, said the church's mission involves spreading light of Jesus Christ throughout downtown.
"I think it's easier to sit down at the coffee hour and say, 'Oh, we don't want a casino across from our church,' than it is to look at the bigger picture and say, 'Will a land-based casino help Sioux City? If so, whose neighborhood should it be in?'" Rohlena said.
Miller also noted the Warrior project, if it gets the go-ahead, would revitalize the neighborhood around the church and the broader downtown district. The 1920s-era Warrior Hotel, which has sat vacant for more than three decades, would be restored to its former grandeur.
"I think there are people who would welcome the Warrior looking better," Rohlena said. "It isn't a pretty sight sitting across the street."
While the project would breathe new life into the Warrior and another historic structure, the Davidson Building, church leaders worry the increased traffic from a 24-7 casino could cause access and parking problems for its members.
First Presbyterian's parking lot would be directly across the street from the casino's main entrance along Nebraska.
"I don't want to have to police the parking," Miller said.
Ho-Chunk CEO Lance Morgan said parking conflicts should not be an issue. The casino would offer valet parking and more than 500 dedicated spaces within a few feet of the front door, he said.
"Our hours don't usually coincide with each other," Morgan said. "They're big on Sunday mornings. We're more of a Saturday night crowd."
From the start, Warrior developers say they have tried to keep church leaders in the loop about the casino plans. Renderings of the project were shared with Miller before the project was announced last fall.
"We met with Matt real early on, just so he wasn't surprised about anything," said Lew Weinberg, a local businessman and partner in the Warrior project. "We said, 'We don't want you to be concerned as a neighbor.' "
Weinberg and his wife, Renee, attend services at First Presbyterian, where Renee is involved with the choir and bell choir.
Two of the three other proposed land-based casino sites are downtown, each within a few blocks of the church. A Hard Rock Hotel & Casino would incorporate the historic Battery Building at 323 Water St., while a Hollywood Casino would be built along Gordon Drive. Penn National Gaming Co., the Hollywood developer, has offered an alternative site in rural Woodbury County, near the Port Neal interchange of Interstate 29.
The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission on April 18 will select one of the projects, which will displace the Argosy Sioux City riverboat casino. The commission last summer took the unusual step of putting the Argosy's license up for grabs after Penn, the boat's owner, and its nonprofit sponsor, Missouri River Historical Development, failed to reach a new contract.