Feds approve Kenosha casino proposal; Walker to have final say

BY JOE POTENTE
jpotente@kenoshanews.com

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The Menominee Nation on Friday received long-awaited federal approval of its Kenosha casino project.

Now, it’s time to wait for final action from Gov. Scott Walker, who said he will stick to the high bar he has set for off-reservation casino approvals.

But Menominee leaders expressed hope Friday that Walker will be won over ultimately by the thousands of jobs they say the $808 million project will create — in spite of what they expect to be a vocal, negative campaign by the rival Forest County Potawatomi Tribe.

“Wisconsin’s economic future is far more important than an unfair monopoly for one tribe,” said Menominee Vice Chairwoman Lisa Waukau, speaking in a news conference in Milwaukee hours after the tribe received written confirmation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ approval.

Walker, in a prepared statement, said he will evaluate the application using the criteria that he has laid out previously: Namely, that the project results in no new net gaming in the state, has community support and there is consensus among the state’s 11 tribes.

The governor said he will move forward with a 60-day comment-gathering period for the tribes.

“My administration will begin reaching out to tribal representatives ahead of the beginning of the comment period to ensure all of the tribes have the opportunity to provide feedback,” Walker’s statement said.

The Potawatomi, operators of an off-reservation casino in Milwaukee, were quick to take their comments public, issuing a statement shortly after Friday’s decision came down reiterating their “steadfast opposition” to the Menominee proposal.

“Kenosha is squarely within federally recognized ceded territory of the Potawatomi,” said Jeff Crawford, Potawatomi attorney general. “In addition, this Kenosha casino application has been plagued with scandal and controversy and will result in sending tens of millions to out-of-state interests at the expense of Milwaukee. We will likely protect our rights through litigation should it come to that.”

Long-running project

The current iteration of the Kenosha project has been in the works since 2004, when 56 percent of Kenosha County voters favored it in a nonbinding referendum.

The $808 million proposal calls for a series of phases that, when built out fully, would include 3,100 slot machines, 75 blackjack tables, a 5,000-square-foot entertainment venue, a 400-room hotel, a conference center and nearly 50,000 square feet of retail space.

All of this would be built on the former site of Dairyland Greyhound Park, which has been shuttered since racing ended in December 2009.

State Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Somers, a longtime proponent of the casino, said he was thrilled to learn of the federal decision.

“If approved, this is an $800 million project that’s going to create thousands of jobs in southeastern Wisconsin, and this is a great day for job seekers in our area,” Wirch said. “I walk the neighborhoods and I see all the people out there that are either unemployed or underemployed, and this could be just a bonanza of jobs.”

‘Wiggle room’ with Walker?

Walker’s approval is far from a sure thing, however.

In an interview late last year, Walker stipulated that “consensus,” as he views it, amounts to unanimous consent from all 11 tribes, while the no-net-increase criterion would likely require the Menominee to close the casino on its reservation in Keshena before beginning to do business in Kenosha.

Gary Besaw, chairman of the Menominee Kenosha Gaming Authority, earlier this year told a City Council committee that insiders had told the tribe there was still some “wiggle room” with Walker on the consensus issue.

In Friday’s news conference, Besaw said Walker needs to make his decision based on what’s best for the entire state.

“We believe as he reviews the over 3,300 well-paying jobs, over 1,400 construction jobs and over $35 million average per-year revenue sent to the state, that he’ll concur that this indeed is just right for the southeastern Wisconsin area,” Besaw said.

Found best for Kenosha, tribe

The federal decision was based on a two-part determination that the Bureau of Indian Affairs must consider when reviewing off-reservation gambling applications: That the project is in the best interests of the community and the involved tribe.

Still, longtime skeptics remained skeptical that a casino is good for Kenosha.

“It will be an initial shot in the arm, economically,” said Kenosha County Supervisor Terry Rose. “There will be jobs in construction if there is additional construction there and there will be additional jobs at the casino. The issue, though, in the long term, is will it be good for the community? Will we see more crime, more hardship in the community in terms of divorce, bankruptcy?”

Waukau, on the other hand, called Friday’s announcement “a great day for our tribe and state.”

“It also paves the way to a brighter future for our very poor Wisconsin tribe,” Waukau said.

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