BELOIT - Interests involved with the Ho-Chunk Nation's Beloit casino project are heading into the new year preparing for key milestones in the massive development's timeline.
The Beloit Daily News met Wednesday evening with Ho-Chunk and City of Beloit officials to hear updates on the $405.5 million project's progression, with the proposal seeing updates to its economic impact assessment and gaining renewed support from local and federal leaders.
Efforts in 2018 will be vital to the plan's progression, with the proposal set to be weighed by the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Public hearings would be held prior to any decision, and the plan must be added to the national register. The final decision could come in 2019, if a positive recommendation is made by federal authorities, and would be made by the winner of the November 2018 Wisconsin governor's race if an anticipated timeline holds.
Construction could start as early as 2020.
Tribe and local officials alike have said the project would be an economic boost to Beloit and the county. City and tribal officials traveled to Washington to meet with BIA representatives in July, and have stayed in touch since to reinforce the project's viability.
"This is a great opportunity to increase jobs, tourism and provide a range of city and county benefits," said Ho-Chunk representative Collin Price.
Questions remain whether the project can gain all needed approvals, but tribe officials believe a 1990s-era compact between Ho-Chunk and Wisconsin stating the tribe is allowed a fourth facility is a vital legal lane forward.
Beloit's congressional delegation on both sides of the political spectrum, along with city leaders, said unified support at all levels coupled with the economic need in Beloit should green-light the project.
Price also noted the tribe's relationship with Forest County Potawatomi leaders could help the project's future odds. Potawatomi leaders have indicated the tribe would not oppose Ho-Chunk's fourth site plans, Price said.
If the dice land favorably, the project could see construction in 2020 and partial opening the following year with full operations coming in 2022, according to the update economic impact study conducted by The Innovation Group.
The project is projected to include 1,500 jobs; a 300-room hotel; and 2,200 slots along with 50 table games in the casino. The massive project would also include a 40,000 square foot water park and 40,000 square foot conference center/entertainment space.
On top of the casino-related facilities, it's estimated the project could spur major retail and ancillary development in the vicinity and create hundreds more jobs. Tribe officials estimate nearly 80 percent of the 1,500 jobs would come from the Beloit area. Price said wages for workers at Ho-Chunk facilities vary widely depending on duties, but the minimum pay would be $10 an hour along with a benefit package he said exceeds that available to state government employees.
Workers also would benefit from an on-site day care facility, either free to employees or heavily subsidized by the tribe, he said.
Beloit City Council President Kevin Leavy said the city needed to prepare for a spike in new jobs, with the council's leader pointing to the creation of the School District of Beloit's hospitality program and city's Blender Cafe student-public partnership as steps toward readying young people for the specialized workforce.
"It's going to be a challenge we have to be ready for," Leavy said.
Ho-Chunk currently works with Western Technical College near Tomah for professional development training, an option that he said the tribe would be open to pursuing with Blackhawk Technical College.
An intergovernmental agreement in place calls for two percent of all net win proceeds, estimated to create $5 million in annual revenue, to provide the city with $3.5 million and the county $1.5 million in annual revenue. City Manager Lori Curtis Luther said that type of revenue influx would be a "game changer" to provide expanded city services, from hiring more police and fire department staff to improving the city's tight general fund position.
After the first jackpot is struck and operations run full tilt, work will only have just begun. Beloit Police Chief David Zibolski said building strong partnerships with Ho-Chunk security and the department would be essential in breaking down the public perception of casinos posing a security threat to a community.
Zibolski met with Madison casino officials earlier this year to review security protocols and said he believed the Beloit project "would not have an adverse effect on crime."
The chief previously worked closely with Potawatomi officials while serving as a Milwaukee police captain.
"I would say (Madison operations) would be reflective of what we could expect in Beloit," Zibolski said. "It was good to see their operations and learn how it worked."
Ho-Chunk and city officials have scheduled a joint news conference this afternoon at the Nature at the Confluence site in South Beloit.