Gov. Scott Walker’s delay in deciding whether to permit the Menominee Indian Tribe to create a massive, $800 million casino complex in Keshena is a political move. That’s pretty clear from any application of Occam’s razor: Putting the decision off until after the fall election allows Walker to avoid alienating either the pro-casino or the anti-casino sides of the debate prior to the state’s vote on his re-election.
Meanwhile, Walker’s Democratic opponent, Mary Burke, has boldly proclaimed that she would call for an independent analysis of the proposal. Which is to say: Burke has no position on the project, either.
The issue is not one that lines up neatly with existing political coalitions. The Menominee tribe faces huge challenges, with deep poverty and social problems on its reservation, and as the I-Team’s “Doubling Down” series earlier this year showed, gaming is far and away the leading economic driver for Wisconsin’s Native American tribes.
But though many are profitable, casinos are no guarantee of broader economic growth, and they come with their own social ills. Around 2.3 percent of people in the U.S. who gamble are considered “problem gamblers,” according to the American Gaming Association, meaning they show some compulsive traits. What’s more, in many places — the struggling Atlantic City, N.J., is a stark example — gambling in a physical casino is a declining industry. Construction of the $800 million Keshena complex would provide a short-term economic boost to southeastern Wisconsin. The long-term prospects are far from certain.
Issues of economics, morality and addiction are bound up in the issue of gambling in a way that resembles nothing so much as the state’s relationship to alcohol. Like drinking, gambling can be practiced responsibly and recreationally — or in a compulsive, destructive way that loses sight of consequences. It can provide jobs for a community and it can suck away income of those who can least afford to lose it.
Another impact: The Keshena complex very likely would hurt the bottom line of Northwoods casinos and the tribes and communities they help support. The Ho-Chunk nation in May announced a $144 million expansion of its four gaming facilities, including an $11.2 million hotel and a $4.5 million events center at the Ho-Chunk Gaming Nekoosa casino in the Wood County town of Port Edwards. Tribes that depend on Northwoods tourism, of which gaming is one part, bitterly oppose the new mega-casino. So do the Forest County Potawatomi, who also operate a Milwaukee casino and hotel complex that would compete directly with Keshena’s.
Walker— or, depending on November’s results, Burke— will have to find a way to balance these competing interests and eventually make a decision. But in the long term, the trends suggest that casino gaming overall may be in decline, potentially leaving tribes with shrinking revenue and a lack of economic diversity. And that challenge will be huge whether or not Keshena is part of it.
— Wausau Daily Herald