With nearly 40% of all vehicles entering the state of Wisconsin through Beloit, it’s easy to understand why this state line area is anxious to become more of a stop-in, rather than a drive-by destination.
And rather than cower behind its 11.1% unemployment rate, the second highest in the state, the Beloit community appears more optimistic than ever, primed, in large part, by the future prospect of a significant revenue stream and jobs creator, a new Ho-Chunk gaming casino.
It all started on Nov. 7, 2000, when 61% of voters approved a referendum allowing the city of Beloit to enter into “a binding contract with a Wisconsin Indian tribe (or tribes) to operate a for-profit gambling casino within city boundaries.” It carried in 21 of the city’s 24 wards.
With casino plans still in the infancy stage, the state line area of Beloit and South Beloit (actually across the border in Illinois), is now basking in the glow of a pledged $150 million to $200 million Ho-Chunk project expected to attract 2,000 permanent jobs, 500 construction jobs, and a host of spin-off developments to the area, not to mention financial shots-in-the-arm for the city and county.
For a city that has suffered deep economic losses, the news couldn’t come at a better time, even if it has to wait two, three, or five years for it to happen.
And therein lies the problem. Casinos don’t happen overnight.
A historical perspective
This isn’t the first time the city has considered a tribal casino, but this time, it appears to be a good bet. The Wisconsin Winnebago tribe – renamed the Ho-Chunk Nation in 1994 – is native to Wisconsin, and its people put down roots in the city of Beloit long before the white man arrived. That’s significant, being that the most recent attempt to open a Beloit casino – by the St. Croix and Bad River bands of the Chippewa – fell through largely because neither could demonstrate an early claim to the land, nor were their reservations geographically close to Beloit.
In contrast, the Ho-Chunk Nation’s ancestral territory once extended from Green Bay south to Rock Island, Ill., but throughout history, the tribe ceded much of that land. Currently, the Nation owns just 8,000 acres, and revenue generated from that land, particularly from tribal casinos, supports its people – 7,000 strong – providing everything from education services to health care.
It’s difficult now to imagine how the tribe survived prior to gaming casinos. Its modest beginnings were in smoke shops, where tobacco could be purchased tax-free. “They helped us try to find ways to generate money, but did not sustain the population,” said Dan Brown, executive manager of Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison (Dejope) and former vice president of the Ho-Chunk Nation. “Many members danced at Stand Rock in the Dells, many did beadwork, anything they could come up with to earn a living. There just wasn’t much opportunity at that time – for anyone.”
While casinos have generated much-needed revenue, expenses and needs continue to mount. “We have boomers, too,” reminds Brown, who has been extremely active in the Beloit project. “We fund a lot, but the [tribe’s] needs are outpacing the revenues.” He’s excited at the prospect of helping to turn that tide with additional revenues from Beloit.
Casino revenue is “akin to what taxes do for the mainstream,” he said. “We don’t have a reservation. We have what is called a checkerboard trust land status around the state.” In 1988, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act granting Native Americans the ability to provide for self-sufficiency and economic development. Land acquired after 1988, if specifically targeted for tribal development, must be put into trust, and proven to be ancestral, aboriginal, or to have had treaty rights. All of Ho-Chunk’s gaming facilities are located on trust land. Beloit’s will be, too, if chips fall as hoped.
The Nation is currently applying to the federal government to put the Beloit parcel into a trust for gaming purposes. “Our feasibility study was done five years ago,” Brown said. “We already realized the potential revenue it could generate.” It has also considered the financial impact the casino would have on its other nearby facilities around the state. “We expect a 19% hit at Dejope (Madison), and 20% in the Dells,” Brown said. But benefits outweigh the risks. “We absolutely want this [Beloit casino] to be a tourist destination.”
Making a splash
The tribe’s compact with the state of Wisconsin guarantees it a fourth class III gaming facility – similar to its flagship Wisconsin Dells property, and although plans for Beloit can still change, they include a 150,000-sq.-ft. of casino, 35,000-sq.-ft. convention center, and a 300-room hotel. It would part ways with the Dells casino primarily in its design, which Brown describes as a very modern, state-of-the-art gateway into the state that would “make a splash.”
While plans do not include a waterpark, the project would provide year-round impact because of its proximity to the Chicago market. “It will also provide for both the high-end and penny or nickel player that doesn’t want to drop hundreds at a sitting,” Brown explained.
Their enthusiasm is evident.
“One of the things the Ho-Chunk is going to provide for the state line area is a convention center,” which the area currently lacks, Frederiksen said. “This will not just be a casino, it will be an entertainment complex. There will be shows, conferences, and meeting spaces. It will be a facility that will hold large community events. The casino will bring dollars into the city, but the biggest benefit for Visit Beloit will be the conference center, bringing people in from around the country.”
Upton agrees the project has the potential to transform the area. And it’s a good fit, he explained, expounding upon the historical relationship between the Ho-Chunk and the city of Beloit. “There is a true connection,” he commented, “a historical relationship that can also impact our downtown areas.”
He’s working with the state Department of Workforce Development to develop training programs for casino and other jobs, and the Department of Tourism is also introducing a new hospitality training program.
“These are not just minimum-wage jobs,” Frederiksen insisted. “A lot of jobs will be created from this – sustainable jobs, from director of security on down. Many think hospitality jobs are low-paying, but that’s just not true.”
Frederiksen has visited Ho-Chunk’s Black River Falls headquarters and started conversations with the tribe’s public relations and marketing departments. “We have to be proactive,” she said, “so by the time they get permission to start building, we’ll have our ducks in a row.”
Likewise, Brown and Nation President Jon Greendeer have made presentations to Beloit officials and residents. The goals of both parties are aligned.
The state line area presents an interesting, though extremely symbiotic dynamic. The communities of Beloit and South Beloit, though in different states, are intertwined when it comes to economic growth. Chamber members cross lines, and projects and initiatives are often combined for the betterment of all.
Because it is across the state line, South Beloit will not receive any direct monies from the proposed Ho-Chunk casino, but it should benefit from development that will likely result from anticipated improvements to the I-39/90 interstate, since exits off the interstate from the south will funnel traffic its way. Anticipating increased business, population, and traffic, South Beloit is looking at its infrastructure, and may consider a referendum to improve its sewer system.
“There will be increased traffic and a larger focus on the entire Beloit area,” said Upton. “The highway from Chicago to the state line is being developed and expanded, and will have bus lanes in the middle.” From the north, anticipated improvements between Madison and the state line should begin in 2014-2015, and Upton and his colleagues hope a planned improvement to the I-43/Hwy 81 interchange happens sooner rather than later. “This will all make Beloit much easier to get to.”
The intergovernmental agreement the Ho-Chunk Nation, the city of Beloit, and Rock County have been working on for about a year is nearly completed. The draft calls for the Ho-Chunk to send quarterly payments to the city of Beloit amounting to 2% of the casino’s net winnings. The city would retain 70%, and the county would get the remainder. According to City Manager Larry Arft in an article from the Beloit Daily News, that amounts to an initial annual payment of between $5 million and $7 million, which could fluctuate later depending upon the casino’s success.
Hurry up and wait
The agreement needs approval from all three entities before being reviewed at the regional Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office in Minnesota. After the regional BIA reviews the proposal, its economic impact, and needs assessment, it will consult with municipalities within a 25-mile radius of Beloit to allow those local governments to raise any concerns they might have. The document is then sent on to the central BIA in Washington, D.C., for its review. The Secretary of the Interior must approve the agreement before it is returned to Wisconsin’s governor for final concurrence.
Hence, the wait.
“I’ve learned that if something goes to Washington, D.C., expect nothing to occur for a while,” laughed Upton.
Frederiksen concurred. “We’re playing the waiting game, but also doing a lot of planning. Those new employees will be buying gas, groceries, and sending their kids to schools, but I don’t have a gut feeling as to how long this will take. They say two to four years.”
Is that disappointing, considering all the anticipation?
“It just is,” she said.