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Ho-Chunk receives approval for Beloit casino (UPDATE)

image-15Plans for the Ho-Chunk Nation’s $405 million casino in Beloit are heading to Gov. Tony Evers’ desk after federal officials signed off on the project.

The city of Beloit announced Thursday that the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs had approved plans to build the casino off Interstate 39/90, a half-mile from the Illinois border. The project, which has been in the works for more than a decade, still needs approval from Gov. Evers to proceed.

“While the federal approval of Ho-Chunk Nation’s application to place land in trust and allow Las Vegas-style gambling at an entertainment destination in Beloit is news we have waited many years to receive, we must remain focused on the current state of emergency,” Beloit City Manager Lori Curtis Luther said in a statement. “Once this crisis is over, we look forward to celebrating this amazing announcement that will bring much needed future revenue and jobs to Beloit.”

The Ho-Chunk Nation has long been pursuing the construction of a new casino at the corner of Willowbrook and Colley roads in Beloit — a site that’s across the highway from the city’s visitors’ center. The BIA’s decision allows the tribe to place into a trust 33 acres that are part of a larger 73.5-acre parcel the Ho-Chunk owns. Federal law now gives Evers authority to either approve or reject the plan for an off-reservation casino.

While he was campaigning for governor, Evers told the Beloit Daily News he’d approve the project. But Evers has since walked back those comments, saying said he would carefully evaluate the plans. A spokesperson for the governor didn’t return a message seeking comment by press time Friday.

The BIA has been advancing plans for the casino over the past year, publishing a final environmental-impact statement about the project last May after holding public hearing sessions on the project.

“Casinos have been the bedrock of tribal economies across the nation. The economy of the Ho-Chunk Nation is no different,” tribal Vice President Karena Thundercloud wrote Thursday in a letter to Ho-Chunk members who are employed by the tribe.

A report commissioned by the Ho-Chunk and prepared by a consultant found the project could create some 2,500 construction jobs and result in $539.8 million in total spending. The casino itself would employ about 1,500 workers, according to the report.

Across the Illinois border, plans are also advancing on another large casino project.

City officials last fall signed off on a $310 million, 65,000-square-foot Hard Rock Casino in Rockford, Illinois. The plan is now under consideration by the Illinois Gaming Board.

The Ho-Chunk last year also announced an expansion of its casino in Madison, a project that would add about 100,000 square feet to the casino’s existing gaming floor, a hotel with between 150 and 250 rooms, a parking structure and a 33,000-square-foot heritage center.

Ho-Chunk officials told the Daily Reporter last year that the tribe’s government would ultimately need to decide whether to pursue the Madison expansion or the Beloit casino project. An official with Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison didn’t return a message seeking comment by press time Friday.

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