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Beloit, Rockford casino supporters push ahead

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GINA R. HEINE
May 27, 2012
— The developers behind casino proposals in Beloit and Rockford, Ill., both say they’ll move ahead with plans no matter who gets the green light first.

With an application for an off-reservation Ho-Chunk Nation casino, convention center and hotel in the hands of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, waiting is all supporters of the Beloit project can do. While that process typically takes up to two years, legislators and the governor at the Illinois Capitol could approve a compromise before their spring session ends Thursday that would provide a license for a privately developed Rockford casino.


Illinois legislators are considering a casino gaming expansion bill, which names Rockford as a site for a casino license. The Illinois House approved the bill Wednesday, but the Senate has yet to vote, and Gov. Pat Quinn threatened a veto after the House vote. Action could happen this weekend as the Senate is scheduled to be in session through today.


Unlike the Beloit Indian gaming proposal and several others around Wisconsin, a Rockford casino would be built and run by a private developer, therefore avoiding the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs approval process required for the Beloit plan.


Illinois state officials are aware and Rockford Casino Coalition members have made it “very clear” that there is a “first-mover advantage,” said John Groh, president and CEO of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and one of the founders of the Rockford Casino Coalition.


“We need to move quickly before additional gaming springs up on our borders,” he said.


“On our side, it doesn’t really matter,” Ho-Chunk President Jon Greendeer said. “We’ve got our application in. It doesn’t matter if they build or if they don’t build. … As Beloit goes forward, we don’t have the luxury of saying we’re not going to do Beloit because Rockford is looking like it’s going to happen. No, we are committed to Beloit.”


What’s proposed?

The Ho-Chunk Nation is proposing a 145,000-square-foot gaming facility, and the project also would include a 300-room hotel and a 35,000-square-foot convention center just off of Interstate 90/39 in Beloit.


According to the intergovernmental agreement, the city of Beloit would receive 2 percent of net wins with no offsets for state payments or operations of the casino. Rock County would receive 30 percent of the 2 percent.


Beloit City Manager Larry Arft has conservatively estimated the 2 percent payment at $5 million to $7 million a year. Of that, the county would receive 30 percent, or $1.5 million to $2.1 million. The payments are in lieu of property taxes.


The Ho-Chunk submitted its application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ regional office in Minnesota this spring after the Beloit City Council, Rock County Board and Ho-Chunk legislators approved an intergovernmental agreement. If federal approval is granted, the final approval goes to Wisconsin’s governor for the final word.


As soon as the application gets the green light, “commerce begins that minute,” Greendeer said.


In Rockford, potential developers and owners of a casino have had informal discussions with city leaders, but once a casino license is available, a formal process will unfold, Groh said. No details are decided on what a development would include.


The state license would determine the number of games, but development such as a conference center, water park or theater would be negotiated between the host community and developers, he said.


The Illinois House and Senate approved a gaming expansion bill last year but withheld it from the governor’s office for fear of veto. The compromise bill under consideration would address many of the concerns raised last year, and it names five communities—including Rockford—for gaming licenses, Groh said.


Provisions in the bill would allow a temporary facility to open while a permanent facility is designed and constructed, Groh said. That would allow a temporary Rockford casino to open “certainly … within the two-year window of application process the Beloit casino is in now,” he said.


Race to the green light

Three of the five Illinois communities named in the bill for gaming licenses—Rockford, Lake County (just south of Kenosha, where a casino also is proposed) and Danville—are near the state’s borders with Wisconsin and Indiana. Casino supporters have pushed lawmakers to act quickly because of the competitive situation, Groh said.


“If it (gaming expansion bill) doesn’t move forward in the (session ending Thursday), I think the conversation continues, even if Beloit moves forward,” he said.


If Beloit’s application is approved, he said he doesn’t think it rules out Rockford’s plans.


“I think it changes the competitive landscape—the goal to build first,” he said.


He also said the city could follow Beloit’s route and find an Indian tribe that claims the area as its native land, but so far the focus has been on private development.


Expanded gaming in Illinois has been discussed for years. The Rockford Casino Coalition and member organizations have long believed gaming expansion in the state and Rockford are part of an overall strategy to move the community forward, Groh said.


Meanwhile, Greendeer guarantees the people putting the shovels in the ground in Beloit “are people with some of the most gaming experience in the Midwest.”


“We’re better at it. It’s going to be beautiful. It’s going to light up the town,” he said.


“When you shotgun an idea like this, they’re going to be doing more damage control than they are making progress,” he said of Rockford casino supporters. “We’ve got 10 years into this game. We’re still in a strong learning curve.”


He said Rockford proponents will “manufacture a need” to move the proposal because of Beloit.


“But as long as folks know Beloit is coming anyways, their investors are ready to build a Starbucks next to a Starbucks,” Greendeer said.


Casino proposals
Beloit: The Ho-Chunk Nation is proposing a 145,000-square-foot gaming facility. The development also would include a 300-room hotel and a 35,000-square-foot convention center just off of Interstate 90/39 in Beloit.

The nation would invest $150 million to $200 million in the facility, which would employ 1,000 to 2,000 people. Some 80 percent of the jobs are expected to go to non-tribal workers, Beloit officials estimate.


Kenosha: A Menominee Nation Casino is proposed for the old Dairyland Greyhound Park in Kenosha, according to a Jan. 29 story in the Racine Journal Times.

If approved, it would employ an estimated 3,100 people and put another 1,400 to work during three to four years of construction, Eric Olson, the tribe’s Kenosha project director, told the newspaper. The casino would hold 12 to 14 bars and restaurants, include a 400-room hotel and entertain people in a 5,000-seat arena, Olson said.


The U.S. Department of the Interior rejected a previous Kenosha casino proposal in 2009, according to the newspaper.


Shullsburg: The Lac du Flambeau band of Chippewa Indians this spring presented a plan for a casino in Shullsburg, a city of about 1,200 in Lafayette County, according to a March 22 story in the Telegraph Herald of Dubuque, Iowa.

The development could be a $50 million to $75 million project with up to 600 jobs, depending on how big of a facility is built, a tribal chairman described in the article.


The proposal also is the second try for a Shullsburg casino. A decade ago, state and federal officials, according to the newspaper, rejected a plan that included a 300-room hotel, golf course and water park. Tribal members said the new proposal would be done in stages and includes a hotel.


Sheboygan: Claremont New Frontier Resort, which owns the Blue Harbor Resort, and the Sokaogon Chippewa Community of Mole Lake earlier this year announced they were exploring building an off-reservation casino near Lake Michigan, according to a May 15 article in the Sheboygan Press.

The tribe, resort and city entered into a contract in March that gives them 120 days—with two 30-day options to extend negotiations—to reach a formal development agreement. If a deal is struck, city leaders have said they would almost certainly put the issue to referendum, perhaps as soon as November, according to the newspaper. An opposition group, Citizens for a Strong Sheboygan, already has formed.


Rockford, Ill.: A casino in Rockford has been talked about for years, but a project can’t move forward without lawmakers and the governor expanding gaming in Illinois. The House approved a bill Wednesday that would expand gaming, including providing a license for a Rockford casino, but the Senate, which is meeting through the weekend, had yet to vote Friday afternoon.

Potential developers/owners of a casino have had informal discussions with city leaders, but once a casino license is available, a formal process will unfold, said John Groh, president and CEO of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and one of the founders of the Rockford Casino Coalition. No details are decided on what a development would include.


The state license would determine the number of games, but development such as a conference center, water park or theater would be negotiated between the host community and developers, he said.



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