Casino closures mean financial blow for Ho-Chunk community

Monday 20th April 2020

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- Ho-Chunk casinos in Wisconsin have kept their doors closed for more than a month under Governor Tony Evers' Safer at Home order, but it has not been easy financially.

With the business gone, casino staff has been hit especially hard.

"Just over 3,000 employees, we reduced that down by 60 percent," said Ho-Chunk Nation President Marlon WhiteEagle.

WhiteEagle said his administration has made an effort to support furloughed staff.

"As a temporary layoff, they were able to keep their health benefits," WhiteEagle explained. He added he has also been working with the Ho-Chunk Legislature to help those impacted.

However, the loss of revenue is tough for his administration. Money from casinos is a primary funding source for the entire Ho-Chunk Nation.

"We have minimal BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) funding and grant funding," WhiteEagle explained, adding, "[Casino revenue] gives us a lot of freedom to fund various projects."

The money helps pay for a number of services across departments including healthcare, scholarships and programs to preserve native culture.

Loss of revenue could also impact future projects. The Bureau of Indian Affairs recently approved Ho-Chunk's application for a new casino in Beloit, but with the financial hit from other casino closures, WhiteEagle said plans could be delayed.

"We'll have to again strategize...what's the best way to get the project going again," WhiteEagle said.

Right now, his priority is to keep everyone safe and hopefully get back to normal soon.

"We definitely want to bring back everybody and reassure them that we're thinking about them," WhiteEagle said.

As plans for the Beloit casino move forward and await Governor Tony Evers' approval, not everyone is happy about the project.

Beloit City Manager Lori Curtis Luther said the approval from the BIA is exciting news for the city.

"It is going to bring much needed future jobs and revenue to the city," she said.

However, Lorri Pickens, Executive Director of Citizens Against Expanded Gambling, said she hopes Governor Evers does not give the project the green light.

Pickens said Wisconsin does not need another casino, adding that it is a saturated market. According to Travel Wisconsin, there are 26 casinos in the state.

Pickens also said she is worried the casino will not benefit the local community and small businesses because the casino will have a lot of amenities.

"There'll be restaurants, they'll even have gas stations on there, so people who go to the casino, there'll be a full service deal, and then they'll leave and there'll be no extra money spent in that community," Pickens said.

Pickens said she has also had trouble getting through to the Governor's office and has been unable to leave a voicemail, but she encourages anyone opposed to the casino to keep reaching out.

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