Editor's post: The fate of the Beloit Project may end up in the hands of the tribes themselves
Gary King, editor | Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013
You have to be impressed with the courage displayed by the St. Croix Tribe in diversifying their portfolio beyond gaming.
Businesses in the field of construction, retail, computers, travel, fish farming and food retail - namely a grocery store in Siren - have all been developed consistently by the tribe over the years, along with other ventures - successes and failures of course - in the mix.
If anything, St. Croix Tribal Enterprises, the largest employer in our region, has not ignored its potential regarding expansion. But perhaps their most courageous and ambitious effort to expand beyond their local casinos came in the gaming industry itself. More than a dozen years ago the tribe, along with another Chippewa tribe, Bad River, approached the city of Beloit with a plan to be part of a huge casino complex that was going to be part of convention center complex just off Interstate 90. It was financially backed, in part, by a well-known entrepreneur in southern Wisconsin.
Beloit’s key city players, and a good number of its residents, were excited. Unemployment there was, and still is, a serious problem and the project promised hundreds of new jobs. In a 1999 referendum, 61 percent of Beloit voters approved implementation of the casino project.
Together the St. Croix and Bad River invested countless hours and resources, opening an office in Beloit, getting to know the local community leaders and arranging countless trips to Washington, D.C., as part of the application process for off-reservation gaming.
In January of 2009, the application was denied and another Wisconsin tribe - the Ho Chunk - saw an opportunity to get its foot in the door.
Two years earlier, their tribal leaders adopted a resolution to “express the Nation’s intent to pursue a fourth side for Class III gaming within the City of Beloit if the application for similar gaming filed by the St. Croix Chippewa and Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribes was denied or sent back to the regional office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”
Reports are somewhat inconsistent on what parcels of land in the project were part of the original deal and how large those parcels were, but following the denial of the St. Croix/Bad River application, the owner of one of the parcels of land agreed to sell it to the Ho Chunk for a reported $4 million. The city council gave its stamp of approval.
The St. Croix and Bad River tribes responded in April of this year by filing a lawsuit claiming a land option they had with the city should take precedence over the sale to the Ho Chunk.
A hearing is set for October at the Rock County Courthouse in that matter.
City officials, according to the Beloit Daily News (“City expects to win lawsuit in land dispute by Chippewa,” by Shaun Zinck) are claiming that the city did have an option with the Chippewa tribes, however, it was contingent on them (tribes) bringing a casino to the area. Further, they claim the St. Croix/Bad River tribes missed the deadline for appealing the 2009 denial of their application for the off-reservation project by the federal government.
In the interim, southern Wisconsin media pundits have weighed in on the issue. The Beloit Daily News has consistently come out in favor of both the St. Croix/Bad River and the Ho Chunk proposals. “Local support generally is not an issue,” one of their recent editorials noted. “Casino developments promise hundreds of millions of dollars in construction, hundreds of construction jobs; and hundreds, if not thousands of jobs once the facilities are up and running.”
The Capital Times in Madison is taking a slightly different view.
“Wisconsin is already flush with gambling - 17 American Indian casinos, seven smaller tribal convenience stores with slot machines, a state-sanctioned lottery at most gas stations, groceries and liquor stores, and video poker machines in bars …”
While the future of the Beloit Project seemed dismal at times, due to the apparent lack of interest by the U.S. Department of Interior to approve the development by tribes of off-reservation casinos, recently there have been some interesting developments on that front.
Last week that same federal department approved the Menominee tribe’s plans for an $800 million off-reservation casino in Kenosha.
That fueled the hopes of supporters in Beloit and members of the Ho-Chunk tribe.
Toss into the mix the fact that the Ho-Chunk negotiated a compact with the state years ago that allows them to open one more casino.
In light of those developments, along with the lawsuit by the St. Croix/Bad River tribes, which temporarily blocks the sale of land to the Ho Chunk for the project, the stakes have risen even higher.
And guess who the dealer is. Gov. Scott Walker.
Federal law says the governor has the power to veto or approve proposed off-reservation casinos.
This week, Walker told a group of tribal leaders, state lawmakers and Kenosha business leaders that he hoped the 11 Indian tribes in Wisconsin can reach an “agreement among themselves” on whether to back the proposed Kenosha casino.
What kind of an agreement is the governor talking about?
If it’s one requiring unanimous support among the tribes, both the Kenosha and Beloit proposals may never see completion. After all, it’s gotten competitive among neighboring tribes, especially when it comes to competition for gaming revenue.
The saga of the Beloit Project continues and it appears as if the St. Croix and Bad River tribes are still in the running. A judge might consider the investment - years of planning and likely millions of dollars - made by the two tribes.
But likely it will come down to the interpretation of the written agreement between the tribes and the city.