Candace Romano

Ho-Chunk Nation, Beloit officials aim for jobs jackpot

By - Jan 16th, 2012 04:00 am

With the second-highest unemployment rate in the state, Beloit officials are welcoming the possibility that the Ho-Chunk Nation will build a casino in the city.

Ho-Chunk and city representatives unveiled a proposal to build a 700,000-square-foot casino and convention center to residents at a meeting Tuesday, Jan. 10.

Beloit City Manager Larry Arft

City Manager Larry Arft said the plan would be a $150 million to $200 million capital investment in the area and bring 2,000 jobs to Beloit.

According to the Greater Beloit Economic Development Corp., the casino would be Beloit’s largest employer, followed by Beloit Health System, with 1,464 workers, and the School District of Beloit, with 1,159.

With a November unemployment rate of 11.4 percent – only Racine’s rate of 11.9 is higher, according to the Department of Workforce Development – the development is a welcome one, Arft said.

Randall Upton, president of the Greater Beloit Chamber of Commerce

Randall Upton, president of the Greater Beloit Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged the need for jobs. “When you start talking 2,000 jobs, it could make a huge difference in getting people off the unemployment rolls,” he said.

Arft said the plan would not just add 2,000 jobs at the casino, but it would drive other business to the community.

“There will be more hotels,” he said. “There will be more recreational amenities. There will be more shopping centers in the area. There almost certainly will be more restaurants and entertainment venues in close proximity as well.”

Upton was cautious about whether that growth on the “tight-knit community” would be for the greater good. He said roads would have to be built for the project, which will be marketed heavily to Illinois residents, and the landscape of Beloit could change completely.

“I think it’s a little overwhelming to think what the final outcome will be,” he said. “It’s a huge thing to even consider.”

That said, the proposal is just that – a proposal. Arft said there are numerous approvals still needed, and any construction is years off.

He said that a draft intergovernmental agreement (IGA) needs the OK from the City Council, the Rock County Board and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“We’re still working on that draft, still making modifications,” he said.

Ho-Chunk Nation President Jon Greendeer said the project planned on 32 acres is not necessarily the tribe’s largest.

“It depends on where your yardsticks are,” he said.

The tribe’s flagship casino is in Wisconsin Dells and is 600,000 square feet with 2,300 machines and 1,200 employees. The nation owns five other casinos in the state, in Black River Falls, Madison, Wittenberg, Tomah and Nekoosa.

Arft said the city is expected to take up the matter at its Feb. 6 meeting, at the earliest, with county supervisors reviewing the agreement no sooner than Feb. 9.

If the IGA receives city and county approval, the Bureau of Indian Affairs will review the plan, a process that could take up to two years. Then the agreement needs the governor’s concurrence, but since the Ho-Chunk Nation already has a compact with the state, Arft said, that may not create a delay.

No construction timeline has been set, but it would be late 2014 or early 2015 at the earliest before “anything would go into the ground,” said Arft. Only preliminary site plans have been developed, and the initial plan is for a multi-story building with a 100,000-square-foot footprint.

The approval process may seem lengthy, but Beloit is used to waiting. In 2000, the city held a referendum and 61 percent of residents supported a casino.

“We’ve been working on this since 2000,” said Arft. “It’s been 11-plus years we’ve been working on this project…I think community support has grown over the years.”

He said long gone are the days when casinos were viewed as enticing entities that lead gamers down the path toward poverty, divorce or worse.

“I think a lot of that negative propaganda has been disproven. That kind of fear and trepidation doesn’t have any credibility anymore.”

Upton, meanwhile, said the growth that could accompany the project may have “unintended consequences” for the city and its residents.

“We have to be aware there may be some negatives, and we’ll have to deal with them,” he said.

Added Greendeer: “I can’t be so arrogant to think no one’s going to oppose it.”

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