Legislators Want Walker Decision

One year ago the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the Menominee Tribe's application to take land into trust for an off-reservation casino in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Governor Scott Walker, who has the final word, said he'll make a decision in February. A new hotel (l.) at the Potawatomi's Milwaukee casino may hurt arguments of a “mature” market.

On August 23, 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the Menominee Tribe’s application to take land into trust for a proposed off-reservation 0 million Hard Rock Hotel and Casino at the former Dairyland Greyhound Park in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Governor Scott Walker had a year to decide if the casino could move forward, then he received an extension to next February. Now in a letter to Walker, a bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote, “The Menominee Tribe, local officials and elected leaders, and the people of Kenosha and Racine counties have been patient, but our communities need the thousands of family-supporting jobs and the ripple effect that this project will provide.”

Legislators expressed frustration that the results of an independent study of the casino’s impact have not yet been released and no timetable has been set. Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for the Department of Administration, which is leading the study, said, “Secretary Huebsch is working with special counsel and negotiating with the tribes in an effort to provide certainty about the impact of the Kenosha casino project on Wisconsin taxpayers, so Governor Walker can make a fully informed decision as quickly as possible.” spokesman said in an email.

Meanwhile, Menominee spokesman Michael Beightol said the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel left out information the Kenosha project team had provided, disputing the story’s claim that Wisconsin’s Indian gaming revenue in the past four years was flat or dropping. The article did not take a position on the proposed Kenosha project.

Beightol said the story showed a “modest decrease” in payments, or 3 percent, to the city and county of Milwaukee by the Forest County Band of Potawatomi from their Milwaukee casino from 2013 to 2014. The casino won more than $352 million from gamblers for the 12 months ending June 30–the fourth consecutive year that estimated gaming revenue has been flat or down. The net win last year was estimated at more than $363 million, a slight decrease from the previous year. Gaming revenue at the casino peaked at more than $370 million in the 2009 fiscal year.

The article also noted flat or declining trends at other Indian gaming venues in Wisconsin and the U.S. in general, and at non-Indian venues in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and elsewhere. The story quotes Frank Fantini, chief executive officer of the Fantini Gaming Report, noting, “It’s safe to say that, when you have about four years running where the figures are all within a couple percentage points of each other, you’ve got a mature market. There is almost no other conclusion you could infer, other than you have a mature market.”

However, Beightol said the story failed to report on gambling revenue increases in states like Illinois that recently legalized video gaming. He said, “New casinos and new styles of gambling tend to be reinvigorating for the market. They tend to raise all ships. You see demonstrative evidence of expansion of gambling. Video gaming in a casino is still a gaming position. The preponderance of gaming in brand experience, with the right type of gaming—in this case the video terminals—the marketplace responds and revenues increase.”

Beightol said, and the article notes, the “mature casino market” concept is expected to be used by the Potawatomi and the Ho-Chunk tribes who are lobbying Walker to veto the Menominee’s Kenosha plan. The Potawatomi say a Kenosha casino would cost the Milwaukee casino up to $150 million annually by attracting Chicago-area customers who now travel to Milwaukee to gamble. The Menominee, however, counter that the Kenosha casino would tap new markets that currently are not served by any Wisconsin casino.

In addition, Beightol also said the article failed to mention the Potawatomi’s multi-million-dollar expansions of gambling or gambling-related projects, including its recently opened high-rise hotel. He noted under the state’s gaming compact with Wisconsin Indian nations, the state had no say in the Potawatomi’s expansion plans. However, Walker has made approval by all of the state’s Indian tribes a condition of his approval of the Menominee’s Kenosha proposal. “If it’s OK for Forest County Potawatomi to expand their facility by opening an opulent high-rise hotel in Milwaukee, why can’t the Menominee and Hard Rock invest in Kenosha? The process we’re engaged in with the governor right now will get at that answer.”

The new 19-story, 381-room hotel at the Potawatomi’s Milwaukee property offers a $4,000-per-night top-floor presidential suite with a panoramic view. The 364 standard rooms will start at $149. The hotel also adds 12,000 square feet of event space, for a total of 60,000.

Off the lobby, two new restaurants, bringing the property total to seven, include Dream Dance Steak and the much talked-about Locavore. Van Luu, formerly of Prodigal Gastropub in Walker’s Point, has been named executive chef at the restaurant featuring dishes made with ingredients from local vendors and others that provide sustainably harvested fare.

Don Sally, Potawatomi food and beverage director, said, “With this concept, we embrace the Native American values of the Potawatomi tribe and introduce modern approaches on some traditional cooking techniques and flavor profiles to Milwaukee.” The bar will feature local and regional spirits and beers as well as house-aged cocktails. iPads store the restaurant’s wine list, integrated with pairing recommendations and flavor profiles.

In the hotel’s public spaces, skylights and a system to customize light patterns will simulate indoor thunderstorms, fires and many other themes. The touch of a keyboard can access 16.1 million hues of color. Atop the glass building, POTAWATOMI is spelled out in six-foot tall letters weighing 400 pounds each.

The gaming floor features 3,000 slots and 100 table games—quite a change from when the property opened in 1991 as a 2,000 seat bingo hall.