Hearing completes key step in casino plan

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Austin Montgomery/Beloit Daily News Ho-Chunk Nation Public Information Officer Collin Price speaks to representatives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) at a public hearing over the Ho-Chunk Nation's casino plan held at Aldrich Intermediate School on Tuesday.

BELOIT - The Ho-Chunk Nation Beloit casino-resort development took another step towards a final ruling following a public hearing hosted Tuesday night by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) at Aldrich Intermediate School.

A total of 32 tribal representatives, public officials and community members weighed in on the proposed project that could see Ho-Chunk develop 33 acres into the federal trust for a $405 million casino-resort project, with an additional 40 non-trust acres available for further development.

Comments given Tuesday were mostly in favor of bringing the project to Beloit, with a handful of residents speaking against the casino mainly on moral grounds.

Multiple Ho-Chunk, City of Beloit and Rock County officials spoke in favor of the project they say is finally nearing an end after decades of discussion on the issue.

"I think tonight went well, so a lot of the things we heard in opposition, we kind of knew that," said Ho-Chunk Nation Public Information Officer Collin Price. "We know we aren't going to change everyone's mind. Most of the comments that were opposing it, they have a moral objection to gambling, and that's something we understand."

Speakers in favor of the plan touted the project's ability to reinforce Beloit's standing as a destination town, touted economic figures including increased revenue for the city and county, while also highlighting the projected job growth for the area. According to project estimates, the first and preferred development option could add 1,985 jobs with the smaller options forecasting 1,127 and 236 jobs, respectively, depending on how extensive a project might be approved by federal authorities.

"We look forward to continuing our collaboration as this project is advanced and are confident that this proposed development is in the best interests of the City of Beloit due to the short- and long-term economic impact it will have on our region," said Beloit City Manager Lori Curtis Luther.

Some speakers said they didn't support the project due to the risks of gambling addictions, while others focused on what they said were scaled back economic figures presented when the project was discussed in 2012.

Austin's Barber Shop owner Rod Gottfredsen said he felt Tuesday's public hearing was "a stacked deck" with so many speakers in favor of the project.

"I don't think it's what Beloit needs," Gottfredsen said.

Former Beloit City Council president Tom Warren said he was not in favor of the city and county benefiting from gambling revenue.

"I am leery of proposed deals that seem too good to be true," Warren said.

Public comments will be accepted by BIA until Dec. 24. Although the exact timeline for what's ahead hasn't been laid out, an outline was given ahead of Tuesday's public comments.

All public comments will be reviewed, with revisions being made to the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) before a final EIS document is published in the spring, at which time the plan would be placed in the federal registry followed ultimately by a final decision on the project.

If the project receives a favorable federal recommendation, it would head for a final decision by Governor-elect Tony Evers, who will be inaugurated on Jan. 7. Evers told the Beloit Daily News in a Feb. 8 interview he would sign off in favor of the casino project.

Multiple project options were presented Tuesday, ranging from the full-fledged "Option A" development (300-room hotel, water park, conference center, entertainment space and adjacent retail development.) to scaled-down versions that would see either a 99,500 square-foot casino and retail development with no hotel or strictly a retail development, excluding both the casino and hotel.

An intergovernmental agreement, first approved in 2012 and re-approved last February, would see 2 percent of all net win proceeds to Beloit and Rock County, a total that could create $5 million in annual revenue, distributed between the city ($3.5 million) and county ($1.5 million).

Price said the tribe is optimistic BIA will grant the first option going forward.

"The other options aren't really options from our perspective," Price said. "We know that in order for us to deliver a quality project from our perspective to the community, it has to be all of it - from the entertainment to the convention center to the restaurants. We need it to be a facility that has it all in one."

Comments can be emailed to BIA Environmental Protection Specialist Scott Doig at scott.doig@bia.gov. Comments can also be mailed to the Midwest Regional Office, U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, Norman Pointe II Building, 5600 W. American Blvd., Suite 500 Bloomington, MN, 55347.

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