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Pandemic prompts Wisconsin's tribes to examine diversifying economies

Feeling lucky? Smoke-filled casinos cloud the health outlook for workers and gamblers alike.
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Before the pandemic started, gaming revenue generated about a billion dollars a year, grossing $1.3 billion in 2020. When casinos started to reopen operating at a limited capacity, it dropped gaming revenue by about 30%.

Gaming plays a major role in how Wisconsin's native tribes figure out their annual budgets and when COVID-19 forced casinos to close their doors, it pushed Wisconsin’s eleven federally recognized tribes to face a long-awaited challenge: how to diversify their economies away from gaming.

The Wisconsin Watch took a deeper look into the situation. Mario Koran is an investigative reporter at the Wisconsin Watch, who reported about this topic.

Koran starts by explaining, "The Ho-Chunk are at a place where many tribes now find themselves asking what comes next. The pandemic really sort of underscored this question of what tribes can and should do to move beyond casinos in order to diversify the revenue. Some have been able to answer that question with with varying degrees of success."

Before the pandemic started, gaming revenue generated about a billion dollars a year, grossing $1.3 billion in 2020.

When casinos started to reopen operating at a limited capacity, it dropped gaming revenue by about 30%. It really impacted specifically the Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi and Oneida tribes, says Koran.

Marlon WhiteEagle is the President of the Ho-Chunk nation. He says throughout the pandemic, the tribe has analyzed and evaluated expenses in order to remain as fiscally responsible as they could. But it also forced them to reexamine where revenue was coming from.

"This was back in the early 90s, when tribal members were already saying, you know, we need to not be gaming-centric, we need to have other income, other than gaming but what the pandemic did, when we did close our casino doors for a month and a half, it gave us a glimpse of what that situation would be like," says WhiteEagle.

Industries the Ho-Chunk have begun to tap into include water, paper, and cleaning distributions, he adds. They've also started to consider leasing their land.

Other tribes like the Menominee have followed suit, investing in businesses like maple syrup production and even reinvesting in their sawmill, which was what drew the biggest income before casinos.

"I think the point is that for the Ho-Chunk and for other tribal nations, there have been some stumbles along the way, businesses and enterprises that haven't worked out for whatever reason, one reason or another, but they truly have a lot of promising assets that provide a lot of hope for the future," says Koran.

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