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Despite COVID-19 hits to gaming, Ho-Chunk leaders say Beloit casino plans are moving forward

The off-reservation casino project was first approved by voters in 1999

An architectural rendering of a casino exterior
The Ho-Chunk Nation provided this rendering in 2021 of casino planned for Beloit, Wisconsin. Image courtesy of the Ho-Chunk Nation

Ho-Chunk leaders say plans for a casino in Beloit continue to move forward, although a timeline for construction hasn’t been released.

The off-reservation project near Wisconsin’s border with Illinois has been discussed for decades. Beloit voters first authorized the casino in a 1999 referendum.

More recently, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers signed off on plans for the facility in May 2021. And last year, the project cleared a federal hurdle when the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved placing 33 acres of land into a trust for the project.

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Ho-Chunk leaders continue to meet with local leaders to move the project forward, Ho-Chunk spokesperson Casey Brown said. A new Ho-Chunk president Jon Greendeer took office July 5, and Brown said Greendeer is fully committed to the casino.

Greendeer previously served as the Nation’s president from 2011 to 2015. Brown said Greendeer also worked on the casino during his previous stint in office.

“He was actively involved, and he’s always been for the gaming facility down in Beloit,” Brown said in a conversation earlier this month.

Greendeer’s predecessor, Marlon White Eagle, appeared more cautious about the facility, when he wrote in a post published to IndianGaming.com on June 1 that “our Beloit casino project is important, but it should not be at the expense of our other enterprises.”

“The BIA’s trust process incurs numerous expenses other businesses do not have to deal with,” the post said. “I’ve met with our tribal people and employees at listening sessions and at other events who have said they believe our existing casino facilities should be priority over the allure of a shiny, new casino in Beloit. It serves us best to see our existing casinos capital projects receiving funding, with the end goal of opening a new Beloit casino.”

After White Eagle was ousted during a May primary, Greendeer ended up winning in a June run-off.

When asked about White Eagle’s post, Brown pointed out that a new administration is in office.

Nonetheless, Brown acknowledged that the tribal gaming industry was hit especially hard by the pandemic.

“No one expected COVID,” Brown said. “Our facilities are strong, and they’re bouncing back and coming back … We certainly are looking forward to opening the facility in Beloit, hopefully soon.”

In the midst of the pandemic, the total amount of money netted by Wisconsin tribes from gaming fell by more than 31 percent — from $1.3 billion in the 2020 fiscal year to $890 million in the 2021 fiscal year.

But, by the 2022 fiscal year, that statewide net win had rebounded somewhat to $1.09 billion, according to a report from Wisconsin’s Department of Administration. A casino’s net win is the total amount wagered on games of chance minus the total amount paid out to winners.

Although development plans have not yet been submitted to Beloit’s Common Council for the project, the city’s economic development director Drew Pennington said he’s optimistic about the casino’s prospects.

“We have been in touch with the new newly elected leadership of the Nation,” Pennington said. “They’ve assured city leaders that the project is still on track. They’re just doing a little more due diligence.”

Under an intergovernmental agreement approved by local elected officials, local governments are set to receive 2 percent of the Beloit casino’s net win. Of that 2 percent amount, 70 percent of the allocation will go to the city of Beloit and 30 percent will go to Rock County.

Each of Wisconsin’s 11 tribes have compacts with Wisconsin, requiring them to share a portion of gaming revenue with the state. Although Wisconsin publishes aggregate data on total tribal net wins, as well as aggregate data on tribes’ revenue-sharing payments, the Department of Administration does not release gaming revenue data from individual tribes.

The Ho-Chunk Nation’s Beloit casino has previously been described as a $405 million endeavor, which was billed as including a hotel, convention center and water park.

Meanwhile, another casino is set to open about half an hour’s drive from Beloit. Construction for the Hard Rock casino in Rockford, Illinois began in 2022.