Casinos: Potawatomi Bids For Waukegan Location, Ho-Chunk Waits For Beloit Decision

Aug 22, 2019

You may see more casinos popping up in Illinois in the next year or two. Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently signed legislation allowing a massive expansion of gambling in the state. It includes new casino developments in Waukegan and Rockford, just over the Wisconsin border. At least one Native American tribe in Wisconsin has put in a bid to develop a casino in Illinois.

The Forest County Potawatomi currently operates the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in Milwaukee, its only off-reservation venue. Now, the tribe wants to run a casino just 55 miles to the south in Waukegan, Illinois. The city has a population of about 90,000. Potawatomi CEO Rodney Ferguson says the development in Waukegan would be smaller than the large-scale operation in Milwaukee.

"The size of the market there doesn’t dictate something of this magnitude," he says, talking about the Milwaukee casino. "We’re a million square feet and have grown over the past 30 years to this size. But it will be something smaller, less than the number of machines we have here."

The Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in Milwaukee.
Credit Google Map

In 2013, the Potawatomi strongly objected to the Menominee Tribe’s proposal to build a huge casino complex in Kenosha, fearing an operation so close to Milwaukee would take away a significant amount of business from its casino here. The tribe even withheld casino fee payments to the state, in protest of the Menominee plan. Republican Scott Walker was governor at the time, and ultimately rejected the development.

Like Kenosha, Waukegan isn’t far from Milwaukee, and Ferguson acknowledges Potawatomi’s operation in Waukegan would compete with its enterprise here.

"Certainly it would, and that’s part of the reason why we’re interested in running the operation down there. What usually happens is, the market usually grows and each of the respective casinos ends up losing a certain percentage of the market share. Our goal is to minimize that risk here at Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in Milwaukee, by establishing a presence down in Waukegan,” he says.

Ferguson says Potawatomi’s bid was one of a handful submitted to the city of Waukegan earlier this month. According to the request for proposal, or RFP, Potawatomi could find out soon whether its bid makes the first cut. If so, the city will recommend finalists to the Illinois Gaming Board by the end of October.

An artist's rendering of the proposed Beloit casino
Credit City of Beloit

Meanwhile, another Wisconsin tribe, Ho-Chunk Nation, is still awaiting a decision from the federal government, on whether it can build a huge casino and hotel complex in Beloit, WI. While the Ho-Chunk has been cooling it heels, the new legislation the Illinois governor signed in June allows for a casino in Rockford, just over the Wisconsin border from Beloit.

Ho-Chunk Spokesman Ryan Greendeer says if his tribe’s proposal for Beloit is approved, he’s not too worried about the possibility of the two operations being only 17 miles apart.

"In the Ho-Chunk Nation, we’re very experienced with the gaming market and the industry as a whole. We are tailoring our casino and our entire project to suit the needs of the area. That’s something that I don’t know if it’s going to be done in Rockford. From our belief, whoever goes in there will put up a casino, a hotel and maybe a restaurant and that’s about it," he says.

The Ho-Chunk currently operates a half-dozen casinos in Wisconsin. One person upset about the expansion of gambling in Illinois is Lorri Pickens of the group, Citizens Against Expanded Gambling. It opposes Ho-Chunk’s plans to build a casino in Beloit.

She also fears the impending influx of gaming in Illinois will cause an increase in poverty and gambling addiction. "Waukegan and Rockford are just over the Wisconsin border, and these attractions tend to pull people in, at least initially. It’s new so people will want to check it out, and that’s a lot of times for many people, how it starts," she says.

Illinois currently houses ten casinos. The expanded gambling bill allows licenses in six more locations, including a so-called "mega casino" in the city of Chicago.

It also permits sports betting at venues such as Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears and Wrigley Field, where the Cubs play. Slot and video poker machines could open at O’Hare and Midway airports, as well as at horse racing tracks.