The Ho-Chunk Nation’s $405 million Beloit casino and resort project took a major step forward Wednesday when Gov. Tony Evers agreed with a federal decision to move the designated land into trust status.
Evers’ decision paves the way for one of the largest entertainment complexes in Wisconsin. It is expected to add about 1,500 permanent local jobs and more than 2,000 construction jobs, according to a news release from the governor’s office.
The governor said he agreed with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s decision in April 2020 that taking 32 acres of land adjacent to Interstate 90/39 into trust for gaming purposes would be in the tribe’s best interests and would not be detrimental to the community.
“As we work to bounce back from this pandemic, we must do everything we can to support economic development in communities across our state,” Evers said in the news release.
“The Ho-Chunk Nation and local officials in Beloit and Rock County have been working together toward providing jobs and long-term economic support in the region, and this is an important step forward in making the Beloit casino a reality.”
Ryan Greendeer, Ho-Chunk Nation public relations officer, said there was no timeline for construction yet, but Beloit City Manager Lori Curtis Luther said it was a “real possibility” that construction could start this year.
Luther said the city remains “optimistic and hopeful” that an in-person groundbreaking ceremony will be held soon.
“The city of Beloit is committed to working with the Ho-Chunk Nation on this development,” Luther said. “Not only will the Ho-Chunk Nation bring economic development, job growth and entertainment activity to our community, but the nation will also provide cultural and historical education to our residents. We look forward to welcoming the Ho-Chunk Nation back to their home.”
With Evers’ concurrence, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs will prepare the determination and begin the final administrative process for accepting the land into trust status.
Once it is fully developed, the site will feature a 300-room hotel, five restaurants and 2,200 slots along with 50 table games in the casino. It is also expected to include a 40,000-square-foot water park, an employee child care facility, and a 30,000-square-foot conference center and entertainment venue.
In Wednesday’s release, the Ho-Chunk Nation called Evers’ approval “an economic win for the Nation, the Beloit area and State of Wisconsin.”
“We’ve been focusing so much time and effort on our COVID-19 response that it’s almost surreal to have this great news of the Governor’s concurrence today,” Ho-Chunk Nation Vice President Karena Thundercloud said. “We want to thank the City of Beloit, Rock County, and our respective communities for all the support over the past several years. We look forward to the day when we can celebrate everybody who helped this project along.”
As previously reported by the Beloit Daily News, the project is expected to be constructed in phases.
“Once the design is finalized, we will be better able to predict when we will be able to finish the project,” Greendeer said. “It’s dependent on a number of factors. The plans have not been finalized quite yet, and we don’t know how the phasing will work.”
Under a revenue-sharing agreement, the tribe, city of Beloit and Rock County will receive millions of dollars in unrestricted revenue after the casino and resort open.
Based on a 2018 analysis of anticipated revenue, it is estimated that local impact payments of $5.2 million annually could flow to the city and county. The revenue would be split 70% for the city and 30% for the county under the revenue-sharing agreement. The intergovernmental agreement currently in effect between the city and the tribe states that 2% of net win proceeds will be given to the city and county.
The Beloit City Council is scheduled to meet Thursday to make a third amendment to the intergovernmental agreement that calls for an extension of the agreement until June 30, 2022.
The idea for a tribal casino in Beloit dates to the 1990s.
The Bad River Lake Superior Chippewa and the St. Croix Chippewa made a proposal to establish a casino, but in 2001, the application to place the land in trust was rejected by the U.S. Department of Interior.
The casino proposal was rejected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2009.
In 2009, the Ho-Chunk Nation bought 30 acres of land where the Chippewa bands had planned to build a casino. The Ho-Chunk bought 41 more acres in the area from the city of Beloit in 2013 and moved forward with its own casino project application starting in 2012.
On April 16, 2020, the U.S. Department of Interior approved the Ho-Chunk proposal for a Beloit casino by issuing an approval of land-into-trust status for a portion of the 70-acre property.
Evers’ approval Wednesday was the first of a two-part determination for the Beloit proposal.
Janesville officials hope to dissuade the federal government from demoting the city from “metropolitan” to “micropolitan” status, fearing that it would negatively affect federal funding and economic development.
A committee reporting to the federal Office of Management and Budget has proposed increasing the minimum population threshold to be considered a metropolitan statistical area from 50,000 to 100,000 people.
Janesville has been considered the core city in the Janesville-Beloit metropolitan area, which spans across Rock County, for 40 years, said Duane Cherek, city planning director.
A metropolitan area must have at least one urban center with a population of 50,000 or more to reach metropolitan status. Janesville would need to grow by 56% to reach the 100,000 benchmark under the proposed changes.
If the threshold changes, Janesville would be considered a micropolitan area, a designation currently reserved for areas that have an urban center with a population of 10,000 to 50,000 people.
The change goes beyond semantics, Janesville officials said. It could affect how the city receives federal funding and could take Janesville out of the running for businesses looking for a home.
“You really fall off the radar if you are not a metropolitan,” said Gale Price, Janesville’s economic development director.
Micropolitans don’t get looks from businesses as frequently as metropolitans do because there is less readily available data for micropolitans, and some companies assume such areas don’t have adequate workforces, Price said.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts thorough analyses of demographic, workforce and economic statistics for metropolitan areas but not for micropolitan areas, Price said.
Price uses such data almost every day, especially when working with businesses who are considering moving to Janesville, he said.
When Generac was considering moving into the former John Deere plant on Beloit Avenue, one of the first questions representatives asked the city was where Janesville pulls its workforce from, and the city had an answer right away based on the federal data, Price said.
The city does not have the data or manpower available to conduct such detailed analyses in-house, he said.
Price said the change in status would affect the entire county by taking it off the national radar.
City officials are not yet sure whether the change would affect programs that currently receive federal funding, Cherek said.
Janesville receives community development block grants from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which are used to fund rent assistance programs, neighborhood revitalization, home ownership programs, affordable housing developments, transit programs and other services that help the most vulnerable populations, Cherek said.
Community development block grants are often determined using metropolitan area data. Cherek said it is unclear to city officials if the downgrade to micropolitan would mean a reduction—or even elimination—of funding.
Janesville officials have submitted a letter to the Office of Management and Budget stating their opposition to the proposed change.
Four other Wisconsin communities—Wausau, Oshkosh, Fond du Lac and Sheboygan—also would be affected.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, and Rep. Bryan Steil, a Republican, have joined bipartisan opposition to the proposed change.
Thomas Eugene Cheesebro
Marian J. (Martelle) Christopherson
Kevin J. Doyle
Therese Ann Fritz
Helen M. (Morris) Harnack
Nora Lea (Banks) Horne
Paulella “Paula” (Williams) Leavy
Edward F. Waddell
Ruth B. Wille
A lawyer is citing a state bill that bars government officials from mandating COVID-19 vaccines in a push to reinstate several Rock Haven employees who were laid off at the county nursing home after declining the vaccine earlier this year.
In an email to Rock County Corporation Counsel Richard Greenlee, Fitchburg attorney Michael Anderson mentioned a bill that passed the Legislature on Tuesday and has gone to Gov. Tony Evers’ desk. If signed into law by the governor, it would prohibit county health or state health officials from mandating COVID-19 vaccines.
Anderson’s email to the county, obtained by The Gazette on Wednesday, asked the county how it intends to handle the layoffs and lost wages and benefits for the Rock Haven workers if that bill—and a companion bill prohibiting private employers from mandating vaccines—become law.
Anderson suggested that he is prepared to file a notice of claim—a legal precursor to a potential lawsuit—if the county won’t settle with 15 nursing home workers Anderson represents.
He said most have been out of work since they declined to get the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine earlier this year, violating Rock County’s vaccination mandate for Rock Haven employees.
“If there is a way to resolve this without my filing and serving 13 to 15 notices of claim in early May, I would appreciate trying to do that,” Anderson wrote in the email, which was dated Wednesday.
Anderson is one of two lawyers who in February threatened legal action after Rock Haven workers were laid off, quit or said they agreed to get the vaccine against their will to avoid being disciplined.
Anderson and a New York firm separately are arguing that federal guidelines prohibit employers from requiring workers to get vaccines that have been approved for emergency use only.
The county has allowed some Rock Haven employees to decline for health or religious reasons, exemptions allowed under law, but others who failed to meet exemptions were laid off.
Anderson said as of this week, the Rock Haven workers he represents have not backed down from their opposition to the mandate.
“I want my clients to get their jobs back or get reimbursed for the money they’ve lost,” he said. “I want a neutral (disciplinary) recommendation for them because, arguably, they’ve been laid off for cause.”
As of Wednesday morning, Anderson said the employment status of his clients who were laid off had not changed. The employees’ duties range from nursing to custodial and kitchen staff.
Anderson said Rock County officials had not responded to his letters or emails about the mandate or threats of legal action, other than to note the county had received the letters.
Greenlee did not immediately return phone calls Wednesday.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Evers had not signaled whether he would approve or veto the bill that bars government health officials from mandating COVID-19 vaccines.
The Legislature’s vote fell heavily along party lines, with overwhelming support from Republican lawmakers but only a few Democrats.
If the bill did become law, it’s not clear when or for how long it would be enforceable, and it’s not clear whether the bills would apply retroactively to public organizations such as Rock County and Rock Haven that have already enforced COVID-19 vaccination mandates.
A handful of private nursing facilities told The Gazette earlier this year they would recommend employees get the vaccine, but they wouldn’t require it.
Rock Haven recently hired a new director after it operated for months under interim leadership. The county also launched a third-party review of complaints by Rock Haven workers that they have faced bullying or retaliation in the workplace, although the county has said that review isn’t linked to the controversy over the vaccine mandate.
Anderson has until early May to file notices of claim over the Rock Haven workers’ complaints, but he said it’s possible he could file notices sooner than that. Rock County would be required to respond within 120 days of receiving a notice.
Anderson said aside from his Rock Haven clients, he’s been working with an employee from a southern Wisconsin orthodontist practice whose owner had sought to mandate employee vaccination for COVID-19. Anderson said that owner eventually backed down from the mandate.