Feds take next steps on Beloit casino plan

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Graphic provided by Ho-Chunk Nation & Cuningham Group The Beloit Ho-Chunk Nation casino project would add up to 1,500 jobs if approved. The project moved forward Friday after a notice of availability to draft an environmental impact statement for the plan was issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

BELOIT - The Ho-Chunk Nation's Beloit resort-casino plan is taking a step forward. The proposed development plan is set to be published in the federal registry and a public hearing has been set for Dec. 11.

Documents published Friday by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) advise the public of the intent to file a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in connection with Ho-Chunk's application to place the proposed land, just over 73 acres adjacent to Interstate 39/90 and Willowbrook Road, into trust status, according to the BIA notice.

The proposed $405 million casino-resort project includes a 300-room hotel, water park, conference center, entertainment space and adjacent retail development.

"We feel energized as this is the farthest this project has ever been," said Ho-Chunk Nation President Wilfrid Cleveland. "We look forward to working with our local partners through this approval process that creates thousands of construction jobs and 1,500 full time jobs for Wisconsin."

Public comment on the draft environmental impact statement can be submitted up to Dec. 24, according to Friday's announcement. The public hearing on the draft will be held at 5 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Aldrich Middle School auditorium, 1859 Northgate Drive.

A final EIS is expected in the spring of 2019, according to a website published Friday with all supporting draft documents. Once the final EIS is drafted, there's no specific timeline from once the final statement is ready and netting federal approval before heading to the governor's office in Madison, according to Ho-Chunk Public Relations Officer Collin Price.

In a Feb. 8 interview with the Beloit Daily News, Tony Evers - now the Democrat governor-elect after defeating Republican Gov. Scott Walker in Tuesday's voting - signaled unqualified support for the project. Evers said he would sign the plan if it came to his desk for final approval.

A similar development in Kenosha by the Menominee tribe was rejected by Walker in January of 2015, and the failed project may shed some light on what's next for the Beloit plan's overall timeline. The Menominee plan had a draft EIS published in May of 2012, similar to Friday's announcement, and was approved by BIA in August of 2013 and sent on to the Wisconsin governor. Walker took well over a year - holding the proposal in limbo until after the 2014 elections - before disapproving the project in 2015. According to project details, proposed construction could start in 2020 if all aspects are approved.

The undefined period after the final EIS next spring and federal approval leaves many questions, but Price said Friday's news was exciting for Ho-Chunk and all stakeholders.

"Everyone in the community from the city to the county and entire community have been hearing about this for years now," Price said. "In talking with folks, I am sometimes met with cynicism because of the history and perceived lack of progress. Just getting to this point is promising. We're going to keep doing it. We are going to stay at it and we've believed in this project for a long time. We are going to continue to devote our resources to this."

In a joint statement with the Beloit City Council, City Manager Lori Curtis Luther said, "The City of Beloit is thrilled that the casino project is advancing forward at the federal level. We're hopeful that it can now move more quickly through the final approval process to provide 1,500 jobs and to bring countless visitors to the Greater Beloit area. This casino, hotel, convention center, and water-park will surely be an asset to our great community. The Ho-Chunk Nation has an excellent reputation for running high-quality properties, and we look forward to continuing our relationship with the tribe throughout the duration of this project."

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