Kenosha, Wis., Set to Vote on Tribal Casino Plans

For the second time in six years, Kenosha residents are being asked to give a thumbs-up to a huge tribal casino proposal that backers say would bring thousands of new jobs to and shower millions of dollars on the community.

But opponents warn that the Menominee casino would be an economic drain on Kenosha, its job claims are overblown and the tribe's sovereign status could allow the tribe to back away from its promises.

The Forest County Potawatomi tribe, which operates the state's most lucrative casino in Milwaukee, also jumped into fray this week, announcing the formation of a group critical of a Kenosha casino, Citizens Seeking Honest Answers. The group is expected to mount a TV advertising campaign against the Kenosha casino.

The Menominee casino would serve as a front for non-Indian investors, warned Potawatomi Attorney General Jeff Crawford. He acknowledged the Potawatomi also are worried that a Kenosha casino would hurt the Potawatomi's Milwaukee casino business, which netted about $260 million last year.

Menominee tribal Chairwoman Joan Delabreau said the Potawatomi wanted to lock in their status as the sole Milwaukee-area casino "and keep all of the benefits for themselves. That doesn't seem right."

Kenosha County voters get a chance to weigh in Nov. 2 on what is being billed as the biggest grossing casino in Wisconsin. The advisory referendum is a key step in the lengthy process of converting Dairyland Greyhound Park's 223 acres on I-94 into federal trust land for a casino. State and federal approval must be obtained as well.

An earlier Menominee casino plan was endorsed in a 1998 referendum, 57 percent to 43 percent. That deal died when former Gov. Scott McCallum refused to endorse it, and federal officials raised a host of questions.

What's at stake this time around, according to the tribe: A large casino and entertainment complex employing more than 3,000 workers and a payroll of $138 million a year. The $808 million development would include a hotel, restaurants, spa and conference center. The tribe would also operate the dog track.

A deal between city and county officials would initially send about $15 million a year to local government, or 3 percent of the casino's estimated yearly take of $500 million. If that revenue forecast proved true, the Kenosha casino would far eclipse any other gambling hall in the state, including the Potawatomi casino in Milwaukee.

The Menominee also are promising a $2.5 million annual donation to Kenosha schools, a one-time $5 million donation to local charities and a $150,000-a-year program for problem gamblers.

The casino development would provide a major boost to Kenosha, which has suffered the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs since the 1980s, said Evan Zeppos, a spokesman for the tribe. "It's a growth industry," Zeppos said.

Not all is rosy with the plan, however, say opponents. Most casino jobs would be low-paying, a big chunk of prime land would be taken off the local tax rolls forever and the tribe's status as a sovereign nation could mean few, if any, state or local controls over the operation, said Duane Anderson, a local Baptist minister and spokesman for the anti-casino group

"When people are given the facts, they turn away from the casino," Anderson said.

John Kindt, a University of Illinois business professor allied with the anti-casino group, said the casino would cause a net job loss in the Kenosha area because money destined for other businesses would be spent on gambling.

He said the $47,000 the tribe says each new casino job would pay on average was misleading because the figure includes management jobs and the value of health and other benefits.

Zeppos said the non-management jobs would pay about $25,000 with benefits worth about $15,000 a year. He described the criticism as groundless.

Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann, a longtime gambling opponent, spoke at a Kenosha news conference Tuesday for the anti-casino group.

"I see this as a menacing power, the power of gambling and money," McCann said.