Menominee, Kenosha sign deal for Hard Rock Casino

Tribal application now goes to Bureau of Indian Affairs for review
By: 
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

The Menominee Nation’s dream of having a new casino in southern Wisconsin inched closer to reality Feb. 6 with the formal signing of an agreement with Kenosha officials at the state capitol in Madison.

The Kenosha County Board of Supervisors and the Kenosha Common Council approved intergovernmental agreements recently with the tribe. Those agreements are a necessary part of the process as the Menominee formally submit their request to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“We’re very humbled and honored to have so many of our colleagues, our friends and our delegates show up and give support today at the signing,” said Joey Awonohopay, chairman for the Kenosha casino project, in a phone interview with NEW Media. “I think it shows not only the verbal support but the physical support behind the project.”

Besides Awonohopay and Menominee Tribal Chairwoman Gena Kakkak, attending the signing ceremony were Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian, Kenosha County Executive Samantha Kerkman, Reps. Jeff Mursau and Peter Schmidt and a number of other distinguished leaders from throughout the state.

“It shows that people believe in the project, that Kenosha County and Kenosha city are ready for the project and they want the project,” Awonohopay said. “They’re here with us celebrating this huge milestone with the two IGAs. I think it shows they’re not just providing lip service. They want to show that they are engaged with us, and we all want to be good partners with each other as this project moves forward.”

If approved by the federal and state governments, the casino would be built west of Interstate 94. A Hard Rock Cafe, six new restaurants, a live entertainment venue and hotel with 150 rooms would be part of a casino with 1,500 slot machines, over 50 table games and a sports booking area. Kenosha County can expect the casino to attract about 2.4 million visitors annually, most of them coming from outside Wisconsin.

The project is estimated to cost $360 million. The Menominee claim it will provide more than 1,000 new jobs for the construction of the casino, and then there will be about 1,000 employees to run the casino, as well.

This is the second attempt by the Menominee to build an off-reservation casino. The first effort, which had been slated for Kenosha’s Dairyland Greyhound Park, fell apart in 2015. At the time, then-Gov. Scott Walker denied the tribe’s request because it had the potential to require the state to pay $243 million to the Forest County Potawatomi for expected losses from the Potawatomi’s casino in Milwaukee, in accordance with its gaming compact with the state.

The Potawatomi will not be an impediment with the latest application, though, according to Awonohopay. The land for the new casino is outside the 30-mile radius from the Potawatomi’s casino, he said, although it hasn’t stopped that tribe from opposing the current effort.

“I guess that’s not a surprise to anybody, but I would just say, as tribes of Wisconsin, we all do great work together,” Awonohopay said. “We collaborate with one another. We support one another, go to ceremonies with one another, social dance with one another. For whatever reason, when it comes to gaming opportunity, the bigger casinos in the state just struggle with the opportunity for other tribes to try to lift themselves up.”

The Menominee tried a last-ditch effort to get Walker to change his mind with dozens of members marching 156 miles in subzero temperatures from Keshena to Madison, but then-tribal chairman Gary Besaw was turned away by a police officer.

“What people don’t hear a lot about is the frustration and heartbreak that came from the people of Kenosha,” Awonohopay said. “They were just as heartbroken and distraught over the decision as we were. When we’ve been spending time down there over the past few months, the people of Kenosha had made that very clear that they were very frustrated and disappointed with the decision from our governor during that time.”

Outgoing Legislator Douglas Cox, who was tribal chairman in 2019, suggested that year to try again with the election of current Gov. Tony Evers. Since then, the tribe has gotten its ducks in a row to pursue the project, with the latest step being the city and county intergovernmental agreements in Kenosha.

The Menominee Nation is one of the largest tribes in the state, but it is also one of the poorest. Menominee County is ranked at the bottom for health outcomes in Wisconsin. Besides health care issues, the tribe cites challenges in education, elderly services and substance addiction.

“We continue to rank 72nd throughout the state for health outcomes, and so this revenue from the casino would go a long way when we start looking at elder services, elder treatment and elder housing all the way over to addiction prevention and treatment,” Awonohopay said. “We’re talking about education and services for our youth all the way to the other end of the spectrum of providing employment opportunities for our tribal members.”

A housing shortage plagues the Menominee Reservation currently, and the tribe is hoping that the casino revenue will help with that and other problems, according to Awonohopay.

“Another big issue is the crumbling infrastructure in our school, our tribal school,” he said. “We’ve been patchworking that for years now, and it’s a big concern for all of us. How do we repair these infrastructural needs when we don’t have the finances? This casino, and the revenue coming from it, would give us an opportunity to start addressing many of these needs on a daily basis for our tribal members.”

Existing revenue from the Menominee Casino Resort in Keshena is not enough, according to Awonohopay. He described the current casino as very “modest” but not able to bring in big revenue because of its location. Having a new casino along a major Wisconsin interstate would bring in a lot more people and, with that, a lot more money.

“It (the existing casino) does provide some minimal ongoing tribal operations that we currently have,” Awonohopay said. “Our tribe, like many other tribes, has expanded and has grown with the needs over the last couple of decades. Unfortunately, we struggle with the means coming out of our small, modest casino to meet those needs, and quite frankly, we can’t keep up with our growing nation.”

The next step is the application to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to get the casino land into trust. Awonohopay estimates a decision will come by the end of 2024, although he is optimistic that response could come as early as this fall.

“We’re very optimistic,” Awonohopay said. “They’ve approved this project before. This time it’s half the size, and we’re including the same information.”

Once the bureau’s approval is obtained, the application then goes to Evers, who has up to a year to approve or deny the project. Awonohopay noted that the governor could ask for an extension beyond the one-year window, but it’s doubtful he’d ask for it.

Awonohopay said no efforts have been made to engage the governor in a dialogue regarding the Kenosha casino.

“He continues to keep the project at arm’s reach, which I appreciate that,” Awonohopay said. “We are not at a place for it to get to his desk yet.”

If the governor signs off on the deal, it would take two to four months for the first shovels of dirt to fly, according to Awonohopay, and then another 18 to 24 months for the casino to open.


BY THE NUMBERS

• $360 million: Cost to develop new casino.

• 2.4 million: Estimated annual visits to the casino and entertainment center, with nearly 1.6 million of those visits coming from outside Wisconsin.

• 1,000: Estimated number of construction jobs over 18 months. Also the estimated number of jobs to run the casino once the project is sfully built out.

• $54,000: Average annual earnings for full-time employees.

• $51 million: Annual purchase estimate for good and services for on-going operations at the casino, with more than half coming from in-state vendors.

• $352 million: Estimated direct, induced and indirect annual input on the economic impact of Kenosha County.

• $492 million: Estimated direct, induced and indirect annual input on the economic impact of the state of Wisconsin.

• 150: Number of rooms at the Hard Rock Hotel.

• 2,000: Number of seats at the Hard Rock Live venue.

• 50: Estimated number of table games at the casino.

• 1,500: Number of slot machines planned for the casino.

• 8,500: Estimated number of square feet for the ballroom.

Source: KlasRobinson


lpulaski@newmedia-wi.com