The casino debate is back in the public eye in southern Wisconsin. In 2013, the Menominee Tribe proposed a huge casino complex for Kenosha – but Republican Scott Walker, who was governor at the time, rejected the plan. Now, the Ho Chunk Nation is advocating for a complex in Beloit. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs is considering the tribe’s application. The measure would need final approval from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
The complex would be located at the corner of Colley and Willowbrook Roads, just off of Interstate-39 in the city of Beloit, on the Illinois border. Right now, the 74-acre plot of land is home to a cornfield. The only sound is the occasional car driving by. But, it’ll get a lot noisier if plans for a new casino are approved. The Ho-Chunk Nation wants to build a $400 million off-reservation casino and resort. Construction would begin next year, and the complex is expected to employ up to 1,500 people.
A few miles away at Jerry’s Cafe in downtown Beloit, Grant Woods arrives for breakfast. He supports the casino complex and thinks it would bring family supporting jobs, something that’s lacking in the city of 37,000. Woods says too many employers pay minimum wage, or barely more than that.
“Most places around here only pay $8 an hour. That’s a little bit over minimum wage, and then you expect people to survive on $200 a week. You can’t survive like that,” Woods says.
But, not everybody is thrilled that the Ho-Chunk Nation wants to develop a casino complex here. Another customer at Jerry's Cafe, named Ray, thinks the casino would attract crime.
“Beloit is already known as a port of entry for drugs from the Chicago area and I could see that increasing,” he says.
Others fear the casino would lead to an increase in poverty and gambling addictions. Public Relations Spokesman Collin Price argues that the Ho-Chunk Nation takes problem gambling seriously, and has programs in place for patrons who may have issues with addiction.
He argues the casino would do more good than harm ... and benefit the entire Ho-Chunk community. Price says that's been the case with the tribe's other six casinos in Wisconsin.
“The revenue generated from the casinos go back to the tribal government and then it’s distributed back to the people in various forms. We have 12 different departments, we have a police department, we have our own [Department of Natural Resources], we have clinics that we need to staff,” Price says.
Meanwhile, the Beloit city government is a big supporter of the Ho-Chunk casino complex, believing it will be a boon for the region. Administrator Lori Curtis Luther says the city would receive 2 percent of net winnings from the operation. And she says the Ho-Chunk complex would attract countless visitors, jumpstarting the economy. Luther says the region is still feeling the effects of job cuts by major employers over the years, including the Beloit Corporation, General Motors and Parker Pen in Janesville.
“They would become the largest employer in our community and those jobs would be very meaningful for our residents. The additional revenue that we have the potential to gain from this development is also significant, not only for our organization but the community at large,” Luther says.
But there are vocal critics of the Ho-Chunk plan, too — including the group Citizens Against Expanded Gambling. Spokeswoman Lorri Pickens insists casinos have the ability to devastate communities.
“You have to remember the gambling industry spends an absurd amount of money to paint a fairy tale picture where they sell hope for a dollar, for an extremely long shot at winning a happily ever after ending,” Pickens says.
She says Wisconsin already has 22 casinos and she’s concerned that there’s a saturation of gaming in the state. We’ll have more on that topic Thursday, as we continue our series on the Beloit casino proposal.