Rock County Board OKs casino agreement
JANESVILLE — Rock County Board supervisors voiced their support for the jobs and other economic development a new casino in Beloit would bring to the area before voting overwhelmingly in favor of the project.
The 24-2 vote Thursday night approved an intergovernmental agreement with the city of Beloit and Ho-Chunk Nation for the casino. Supervisors Marilynn Jensen and Robert Fizzell voted no.
"This was a real strong vote for bringing economic development and jobs to Rock County, and that's what this project is all about," Beloit City Manager Larry Arft said.
Beloit officials weren't sure what to expect with the county vote, Arft said, but supervisors asked many questions.
Approval of the agreement is the last step before the nation can submit its application to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to put 32 acres of land into trust for the facility. The Beloit City Council approved the agreement Monday.
Representatives of the Ho-Chunk Nation were pleased.
"We take it as an optimistic sign that we have the local support that we would need to move forward," said Michael Murphy, a lawyer for the nation.
The nation's legislative body is the last group in the three-party agreement to vote. Legislators could vote on the agreement when they meet next on Tuesday, March 20, Murphy said.
"In some respects, the tribe needed to know that these would be approved by the city and the county, so this certainly helps," he said.
It could take two years for approval once the nation submits the application to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Arft said the next step would be writing a development agreement with the nation, though they likely would wait about a year for more details of the project to develop.
Supervisors expressed thanks to the Beloit City Council and city officials for the work they put into negotiating the agreement and closing potential loopholes.
"This right here is a shot in the vein so to speak for us to get our economy boosted," Supervisor Deloyde Sanders said. "I like the fact that it is focused not just on Beloit, it is focused on tourists coming to Beloit, which is going to help us get other jobs in Beloit. So it's not just about the gambling facility. To me, it's about the future beyond this."
Beloit resident Louie Pody offered support on behalf of the Southern Wisconsin Building and Construction Trades Council. He encouraged the nation and city to use local workers and contractors.
Several supervisors echoed his remarks, urging the city and nation to discuss hiring local workers.
Some supervisors raised concerns about gambling addiction, including Fizzell, who said it results in people losing homes and farms.
"This is what happens with problem gamblers, and that will fall to us, the county and social services to address those issues," he said. "Beyond that, we're dreaming," he said, because there's no guarantee a "huge, beautiful facility" will be built.
Murphy said the nation has a problem gambler program at all of its gaming facilities and also contributes money to a state program. He said casino security and surveillance staff are trained to look for signs of problem gamblers as another way to help.
The vote to approve the agreement also canceled the county's previous intergovernmental agreement with the Chippewa tribes who originally proposed the casino more than a decade ago.
Frank Connors of the Bad River Reservation spoke on behalf of the Chippewa tribes in his request that the board take more time. He said there was no communication about their agreement being dismissed, and it was a shock to hear about the Ho-Chunk's proposal moving forward without them after they had talks about partnering on the project.
Supervisor Brian Knudson said he felt bad for the Chippewa tribes and wondered if there were other opportunities available, such as profit sharing.
Murphy said the tribes have had discussions, which could continue.
"There's still potential for us to engage in discussion," he said.
Jensen, who also voted no, said she didn't think the facility would employ 2,000 workers.
"I'm going to vote against this because I feel that small businesses that operate on a very small margin of profitability such as bars (and) restaurants and … schools and organizations that rely on bingo and other raffles are going to be hurt," she said. "They don't have a large profit that they can wait until people get tired of going to the casinos. They will be going out of business probably within six months to a year, maybe even a little bit more."
ABOUT THE CASINO
The Ho-Chunk Nation is proposing a 145,000-square-foot gaming facility, which also would include a 300-room hotel and a 35,000-square-foot convention center just off of Interstate 90/39.
The nation would invest $150 million to $200 million in the facility, which would employ 1,000 to 2,000 people. Some 80 percent of the jobs are expected to go to non-tribal workers, Beloit officials estimate.
Beloit and Rock County could receive millions of dollars through annual net win payments. According to the intergovernmental agreement, the city would receive 2 percent of net wins with no offsets for state payments or operations of the casino. Rock County would receive 30 percent of the 2 percent.
Beloit City Manager Larry Arft has conservatively estimated the 2 percent payment at $5 million to $7 million. Of that, the county would receive 30 percent, or $1.5 million to $2.1 million. The payments replace property taxes.