Our Views: Kenosha decision boosting hopes for Beloit casino

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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Is approval of a Kenosha casino by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs good news for backers of a Beloit casino?

Don’t bet on it.

On Aug. 23, the bureau OK’d the Menominee tribe’s plans for an $800 million complex at the site of Kenosha’s closed Dairyland Greyhound Park. Supporters suggest that the announcement boosts hopes for the Ho-Chunk Nation’s plans in Beloit because, after years of inaction under the Bush administration, federal officials are again reviewing casino proposals reasonably.

Yet here’s where the wrong card turns up: Gov. Scott Walker has the final say on new casinos, and he says one of his three conditions is that all 11 sovereign tribes must agree. The Potawatomi operate a casino in Milwaukee, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that each member of that small tribe reaps an annual dividend of more than $70,000. A Kenosha casino would lure Chicagoland customers from the Potawatomi casino and, one estimate suggests, could slash its revenues 40 percent.

The Menominee could share revenue with the Potawatomi, but a war of words has broken out between these tribes with a history of feuds. A Potawatomi official argues that Walker should reject the Kenosha plans because the federal documents included signers tied to corruption and controversy.

Even the Ho-Chunk oppose the Kenosha plan because they claims historical ties to the land. Ho-Chunk President Jon Greendeer told the Milwaukee paper that the tribe’s opposition won’t change while he’s leader.

So getting all tribes to reach consensus on Kenosha is about as likely as the sun not rising tomorrow.

Beloit casino supporters suggest their plan is far different. They point out that the Ho-Chunk Nation is much closer to Beloit than the Menominee are to Kenosha. They say Beloit is part of the Ho-Chunk’s ancestral land and heritage. Perhaps most important, they note that the Ho-Chunk have already negotiated terms with the state to operate a fourth gaming site.

All these points raise hopes if not point to promise for Beloit.

The Gazette Editorial Board for years opposed the Beloit plans. We reasoned that many casino jobs offer low pay, that more gaming here likely will create more habitual gamblers who pose problems for families and society, and that other businesses might be reluctant to locate in a community with a casino.

Yet last year we reversed course after consulting with Stephanie Klett, a Beloit native and Walker’s tourism secretary. She has seen how casino complexes in Bayfield and Green Bay lifted local economies through jobs, tourism, convention business and spin-off developments. Rock County needs the economic engine that a Beloit casino could bring. It would mean not just hundreds of construction jobs but 1,000, perhaps 2,000 permanent jobs, many going to nontribal members. The Ho-Chunk would invest upward of $200 million in the complex. It also would generate local tax revenues, including Rock County’s share of casino profits. Weighing all that, the complex is a gamble worth taking.

Supporters of the Beloit plans see reason for optimism after the federal bureau’s decision on Kenosha. If the Beloit casino passes federal scrutiny, the site plan already negotiated with the state might mean Walker gives his stamp of approval instead of applying seemingly insurmountable conditions.

Still, it’s best not to bet the farm on that happening.

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