The Ho-Chunk Nation sees a bright future in Beloit in the wake of Gov. Tony Evers’ approval of its casino plans, but it and other tribes are depending on a tourism bounce as the state recovers from the pandemic.
Wisconsin has 26 casinos and gaming facilities that are authorized and regulated by the Department of the Interior, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission. Those venues are operated by 11 federally recognized Native American tribes under the Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
The Ho-Chunk tribe owns and operates six facilities in Wisconsin. The proposed Beloit casino and resort would be its largest development, surpassing its casino in the Wisconsin Dells, said Ryan Greendeer, Ho-Chunk Nation public relations officer.
“We understand it’s going to be a major operation, and that’s what we are planning for. As our largest venture, it’s going to incorporate so much more,” he said. “It is important that the scope of the project reflects that.”
In 2020, the tribe closed its facilities for three months as it evaluated the safety precautions needed during the pandemic.
“We looked at what we could do to integrate safety into everything we do,” Greendeer said.
The tribe is in the midst of budget planning, with the Ho-Chunk Legislature set to approve a tribal budget later this spring.
“We did see that some employees were laid off, and now what we are doing is we’ve been closely monitoring revenue to determine which programs might need to be prioritized over others,” Greendeer said.
He said the Ho-Chunk Nation hopes for a rebound in tourism and gaming this year as vaccine availability increases and life inches back to normal.
“I think there’s optimism here in 2021 and beyond,” Greendeer said. “We’re getting people vaccinated and people who interact with tribal members vaccinated. We are hoping that as a community we will be able to more adequately adapt to the changes that best practices in public health bring.”
The largest gaming facility in Wisconsin is Potawatomi Bingo Casino in the Menomonee Valley near Milwaukee. As currently planned, the Ho-Chunk casino and resort in Beloit would be the second-largest gaming complex in the state.
The National Indian Gaming Commission projected a loss of about $22.4 billion in tribal casino gaming revenue in 2020 because of COVID-19.
A draft report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum shows tribal government revenue dropped by at least 82% in 2020 compared to 2019. Wisconsin tribes could lose $70 million from 2020 through 2022, the report states.
The report also revealed gaming payments to the state’s general fund totaled $5.3 million by June 2020. In 2019, gaming payments to the state exceeded $29 million.
Wisconsin tribal casinos made nearly $1.3 billion in gross revenue based on nearly $17.6 billion in wagers made in the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to the most recent figures from the state Department of Administration.