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Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2008

Tribes Continue to Battle Over Kenosha Casino

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It’s been four years since Kenosha’s Dairyland Greyhound Park and the Menominee Tribe first proposed building a casino at the track, and it is still anybody’s guess when the casino approval will come—if ever.

That uncertainty means the tension between the Menominee and the Potawatomi tribe, which operates the Milwaukee casino, will continue into 2008.



Since neither side can predict if the federal government will approve the Kenosha casino, both feel compelled to continue to fight a war of influence and words. That war has already cost each side an estimated $5 million.



The fact that the outcome remains unknown is one of the few things that spokesmen for the Menominee and the Potawatomi can agree on.



At times, the Kenosha proposal has appeared to be dead, especially given a year filled with controversy in which its main spokesman, Dennis Troha, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors related to campaign contributions he gave to President Bush and the Democratic Party.



But federal officials have stated publicly that Troha’s situation will no longer have an impact on the Kenosha bid, as he divested himself of his interest before his plea agreement. So on the other hand, the federal government could allow the Kenosha casino at any time. At that point, all that would be needed is for Gov. Jim Doyle to approve the final plans, and the Menominee could be in business the next day.



So the Potawatomi tribe will continue to work hard to place as many barriers as possible in the way of the Menominee. It has lobbied both at the White House and in Illinois to try to build opposition to the Kenosha casino.



Potawatomi Expand While Menominee Wait

Some progress toward the Kenosha casino has been made this past year. The Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the Menominee project, and it’s now in the hands of the secretary of the Department of the Interior, after years of waiting. Still, no final date for a decision by the secretary has been set, and federal officials have said that they would prefer not to approve any additional casinos.



The federal government is involved in Kenosha’s casino because the plan is to place the greyhound track property into what is called a “tribal trust.” This would allow for the casino to be located there, as only tribal casinos are allowed to operate in Wisconsin. If the $808 million Kenosha casino/entertainment complex is approved, it would be the largest such gambling facility between Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J.



And that thought alarms Potawatomi spokesman Ken Walsh. He said there is simply not enough room in southeastern Wisconsin for two major casinos just 35 miles apart, especially given the size of the proposed casino. He said that the Kenosha casino will cost Milwaukee jobs and revenue.



“There are 1 million Illinois visitors to Milwaukee each year because of the Potawatomi casino,” Walsh said. “A casino in Kenosha would siphon off those visitors.”



Walsh also said that more than half of the casino’s 2,000 employees are minorities who need the jobs and contribute to the Milwaukee economy. In fact, with the Potawatomi casino’s expansion set to open later in 2008, that employee base could grow to 3,000, he said.



Walsh was careful to avoid saying that current employees would lose their jobs if a Kenosha casino were to emerge.



Kenosha project spokesman Evan Zeppos countered Walsh’s assessment by saying that a study funded by the Potawatomi tribe itself shows that Potawatomi tribal revenues will grow even if there is a Kenosha casino.



“This [Kenosha] casino will create 3,000 family-supporting jobs in a community that has much unemployment,” Zeppos said. “And as for the Menominee, you will not find a tribe with a greater economic need.”



Walsh claimed that the Menominee casino revenues would end up in Connecticut, home state of the Mohegan tribe, which the Menominee has hired to operate the Kenosha casino. The Mohegans operate one of the world’s largest casinos, the Mohegan Sun, located in Connecticut, and they have plans to expand into other states, such as Kansas and Washington.



“I think this proposal is set up where Milwaukee loses while Connecticut wins,” Walsh said. “Milwaukee would be adversely impacted. These casinos are supposed to help Wisconsin, not Connecticut.”



But Zeppos said the state would be a big winner if the Kenosha project actually materializes.



“Over 20 years, such a casino would provide more than $2 billion to state and local governments in [tax] revenues,” Zeppos said. “That is even more than the Potawatomi will provide with its newly expanded casino.”



Zeppos added that if Kenosha is to be expected to cooperate in other matters of regional economic planning—as advocated by the Milwaukee 7 group—then Milwaukee leaders should not oppose a Kenosha casino. Yet Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) and several community groups have sent letters to federal officials stating their opposition to the Kenosha casino.



Looking Ahead

After all is said and done, will there ever be a Kenosha casino?



“Just looking back at the history of this project, the only thing that has resulted has been scandal and controversy,” Walsh said. “That might be what continues to happen for the next 10 years.”



But Zeppos said he believes a Kenosha casino could be just over the horizon.



“I think 2008 could see the opening curtain for the Kenosha casino,” Zeppos said. “Yes, there has been some frustration. But we also remember the importance of patience. There may be some future setbacks still, but we do see hope for change.”



Meanwhile, Kenosha could also be facing competition near its proposed site, as the addition of a casino in northeastern Illinois in the next year or two seems likely. One possible location is in Waukegan, just 10 miles south of Kenosha. Illinois appears to be ready to approve its 10th casino in an effort to help pay off debt and subsidize road repairs. And the state will not have to go through any of the federal bureaucracy because, unlike Wisconsin, Illinois allows private companies to own casinos, not just tribes.



One supporter of the Kenosha project who fears it might not happen in 2008 is Kenosha County Executive Allan Kehl.



“Although the due diligence has been done, it’s in the hands of the bureaucrats and the governor and we have no control in either of these areas. So I don’t think it will happen in 2008,” Kehl said. “But I also have not been told it’s not going to happen.”