Ho-Chunk increases presence as casino plan advances

Staff writer

BELOIT — Efforts by Ho-Chunk Nation officials to move the proposed casino project forward are picking up, with the tribe preparing to make a marketing and project visibility push in Beloit.

The Ho-Chunk Nation has tasked a member of its leadership team with working as a community liaison between the tribe and the city as the ongoing application process continues.

The tribe has also secured workspace at the IronTek facility in downtown Beloit and has joined the Greater Beloit Chamber of Commerce, according to GBCC Executive Director Aimee Thurner.

The moves in Beloit represent a broader push by Ho-Chunk to prepare efforts ahead of any ruling being made on the casino project’s application, currently under review by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Washington. Parties involved with the project believe the project will be approved, which would pave the way for the application to head to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for a final decision on the casino project.

The BIA will rule on the application within two years, and interests involved think the Beloit plan will get favorable BIA review due to strong support in the city and public need due to Beloit’s high unemployment and poverty rates. The casino plan could create 2,000 jobs, according to a marketing pamphlet on the project distributed by the Ho-Chunk.

The trust and gaming applications are expected to be completed by 2018, followed by design and permitting in 2019. Construction on the 38-acre site near Willowbrook and Colley Roads adjacent to Interstate 39/90 could start in 2020, with a final opening date set for Spring 2021, according to the project pamphlet.

The gaming and 300-room hotel complex will include a convention center and five shops and restaurants, project documents show. With 2,000 prospective casino and hotel employees, the casino would become the city’s largest employer. Ho-Chunk estimates 65 percent of all employees will be Rock County residents, with over 1,200 residents putting back around $54 million in new income into the local economy. The future economic investment would reflect as $1.45 million in Wisconsin income tax revenue.

The next step, which still may be a while off, would be for the BIA to issue a notice of availability in the federal register, prompting a public hearing on the project in Beloit.

Ho-Chunk, city and Rock County also have an agreement in place to share a percentage of revenue from the facility which will be used for building needed infrastructure projects in the area, officials say.

Ho-Chunk has agreed to pay 2 percent of the net win proceeds generated by the casino, and 30 percent of the 2 percent revenue would be allocated for the county. Payments of net win proceeds would be in lieu of property taxes at the proposed development, much of which would be on designated tribal land not subject to the tax.

The casino proposal has a long history in Beloit. The original proposal — submitted by the Bad River and St. Croix Chippewa bands — dates back into the 1990s. The Bad River and St. Croix plan lingered and never came to fruition, eventually being superseded by the Ho-Chunk designs for the property.

During the administration of Democrat Gov. Jim Doyle, it appeared the message from Madison was negative toward approving any casino plan that might be brought forward.

Walker has handled one casino proposal, killing a plan to locate a facility in the Kenosha area. Because of its compact with the state calling for one additional site, the Ho-Chunk Nation has expressed optimism Walker would treat its Beloit plan differently than his decision on the Kenosha proposal. The governor has not said directly how he would decide a Beloit plan if it comes to his desk.