As 2021 dawns, and the world without regret says goodbye to 2020, one of the larger decisions impacting Beloit likely is closer than ever.
And, as always, savvy observers may assume politics will play a role, especially when it comes to timing.
It has been the better part of a year since the federal government gave a green light to the Ho-Chunk Nation to build its proposed casino and entertainment complex in Beloit. The initial reaction at the time around these parts, mostly, was surprise. A tribal casino plan dated all the way back into the 1990s, when the Bad River band first approached Beloit authorities followed by St. Croix involvement and, finally, the Ho-Chunk. So much time has passed most people considered a gaming operation to be the longest of long shots.
But there it was, last April, with federal approval moving the Ho-Chunk plan to the desk of Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers for a final up or down decision. Readers may remember that Evers, as a candidate for governor, responded to a Beloit Daily News question with an unequivocal promise to sign the deal if the feds put it on his desk.
So why, about nine months and one pandemic later, is the federally-approved Ho-Chunk plan still gathering dust in Madison?
First, a campaign promise is not the same thing as taking executive action. Once elected, politicians get cautious. Evers has been harder to pin down since taking a seat in the big chair.
And when it comes to politics, timing matters. Remember, for example, when a casino plan for Kenosha received approval from federal authorities. It landed like a hot potato on then-Gov. Scott Walker’s desk. He not only let it sit and sit, he asked the feds for a six-month extension so it could sit longer, taking it safely beyond his re-election bid in 2014. Keep both sides guessing before voters enter the booth. In short order, after Walker won reelection, he turned thumbs down on Kenosha.
Fast forward to federal approval of the Beloit plan in April 2020. While Evers was not on the ballot, Wisconsin was destined to play an outsize role in November’s 2020 presidential race. Politicians do not engage in controversies today they can avoid until after votes have been counted. The only surprise would have been if Evers had acted before the 2020 election.
Now, with that election in the books, the next date circled on the political calendar is in November 2022. Will Evers stand for reelection? Good question, and we’re not even sure he knows the answer yet. But whether he’s on the ballot or not, it’s a lock he will want to put the Democratic Party’s ticket in the best possible position. Which almost certainly means putting distance between controllable controversial decisions and Election Day.
So a betting man would put money down on Evers making his Beloit decision sooner rather than later.
On the local level, the Ho-Chunk casino plan has wide support among not just Beloit city officials, but also from local and regional governments across the Stateline Area. While support among the population never has been universal, it is strong. The plan is massive, calling for hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and more than a thousand jobs, not including the likelihood of spin-off businesses expected to locate near the complex.
Crucially, the Ho-Chunk compact with the state of Wisconsin calls for the tribe to have one more gaming facility, and Beloit fits that deal. Evers also should consider a potential competing proposal across the border, with a plan to build a Hard Rock Casino at the site of the former Clock Tower Inn in Rockford. In any competitive situation, earlier is better.
Times have changed since Beloit first became a proposed casino site in the 1990s. Back then, there was some level of desperation for a community struggling to revive its economic and cultural climate. Today, Beloit is in a much better place with significant growth occurring on many fronts. A casino plan is no longer a get-right-quick roll of the dice.
Instead, it would be one more element in the community’s overall menu of amenities and attractions. Beloit is becoming a destination, not a place people stop for gas on the way somewhere else. A full casino-entertainment complex would be a piece of the larger picture.
For the governor, the timing should seem right. The time is also good for Beloit partners in city and regional governments to make their case. Likewise, state and federal legislators who have backed the Ho-Chunk plan should urge the governor to act favorably.
The clock matters. And it’s ticking.