The Ho-Chunk Nation held a Veterans Day celebration at tribal headquarters in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, on November 8, 2018. Photo: Ho-Chunk Nation

Ho-Chunk Nation takes step forward with off-reservation casino

The Ho-Chunk Nation is finally seeing movement on a long-awaited off-reservation casino in Wisconsin.

In a notice published in the Federal Register on Friday, the Bureau of Indian Affairs announced the availability of a draft environmental impact statement for the tribe's proposed casino in Beloit. The action comes almost six years after the BIA said the document was being prepared.

"We feel energized as this is the farthest this project has ever been," President Wilfrid Cleveland said in a press release. "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."

Architectural rendering of the proposed Ho-Chunk Nation casino in Beloit, Wisconsin. Image: Cuningham Group

The tribe is pursuing the $405 million casino under the two-part determination provisions of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The law requires approval from the state governor in addition to the BIA.

Governor-elect Tony Evers, a Democrat, has previously promised to approve the project. He defeated Republican incumbent Scott Walker, who had a strict policy against new casinos, which led him to reject a two-part determination for the Menominee Nation, on November 6. During the campaign, he refused to disclose his stance on the Ho-Chunk development.

"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," City Manager Lori Curtis Luther and the Beloit City Council said in a statement on Friday. "This casino, hotel, convention center, and waterpark 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."

As part of the two-part determination process, the BIA will be holding a public hearing to take comments on the draft. A final environmental impact statement will be issued before a record decision is made on the casino application. There is no timeline for action.

Assuming the BIA and the governor approve, the 33-acre site in Beloit would still need to be placed in trust. That is a separate decision from the two-part determination.

Beloit lies near the Wisconsin border with Illinois, about 170 miles from headquarters in Black River Falls. The tribe, though, maintains a governmental office and operates a gaming facility about 49 miles away in Madison.

The Trump administration has been discouraging tribes from seeking land away from existing reservations by making changes to the Fee-to-Trust Regulations (25 CFR 151). President Cleveland has spoken out against the proposal, which has generated uproar across Indian Country.

Since IGRA became law in 1988, only a handful of tribes have opened casinos under the two-part determination process. The Forest County Potawatomi Community was the first to complete both steps, for an off-reservation project in Wisconsin in 1990.

The November 9 notice was signed by Tara Sweeney, the new Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the Trump administration.

Read More on the Story
Feds take next steps on Beloit casino plan (The Beloit Daily News November 9, 2018)
'It is a very good day in Beloit': Proposed Ho-Chunk casino one step closer, Evers to consider deal (WISC November 9, 2018)
Plan for Ho-Chunk casino in Beloit moves forward (The Madison Capital Times November 9, 2018)
Beloit Casino project moves toward final approval (WKOW November 9, 2018)
Beloit resort casino project moves forward with development plan (WIFR November 9, 2018)
Ho-Chunk Nation casino in Beloit moves forward on federal level (WWMT November 9, 2018)

Federal Register Notices
Notice of Availability of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Ho-Chunk Nation Fee-to-Trust and Casino Project, City of Beloit, Rock County, Wisconsin (November 9, 2018)
Notice of Intent To Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the Proposed Ho-Chunk Nation Beloit Casino Project, City of Beloit, Rock County, WI (November 26, 2012)

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