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Game of Chance
Native American tribes are pushing the largest gaming expansion in a decade.

Long considered a can’t-miss investment for Wisconsin Native American tribes, gaming casinos proved vulnerable to recession. Gamblers in the state bet fewer dollars each year between 2007 and 2010, and by the close of 2011, the annual “net win” for tribal casinos – wagers collected minus winnings paid out – had slumped to $1.16 billion, down from a high of $1.24 billion in 2008.

Still, in 2013, three of the most ambitious players in Wisconsin gaming are doubling down on the industry that has boosted their economic fortunes. The Ho-Chunk Nation, the Menominee Tribe and the Lac du Flambeau band of the Lake Superior Chippewa are all pressing their bets by pursuing new casinos that, taken together, would represent the largest expansion of Wisconsin gaming in more than a decade.

A fixture in Wisconsin, tribal gaming started here more than 20 years ago, and today, tribes operate 25 casinos. The three proposed off-reservation locations – Ho-Chunk’s complex in Beloit, Menominee’s in Kenosha and Lac du Flambeau’s in Shullsburg – would add more than 6,000 slot machines and electronic games, and some 140 tables for games such as blackjack and craps. But approval from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and Gov. Scott Walker is far from certain. The federal agency rejected past versions of the Kenosha and Shullsburg projects.

As tribes are betting on an improved economy and a resurgence in gambling, some analysts say the state’s market is already overloaded. “I don’t see anything near the surge that there was over the last 15 years,” says Daniel Alesch, a professor emeritus of public administration at UW-Green Bay who analyzed the gaming market for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. “If you start counting on the money, and the money starts declining – then you have problems.”

The Forest County Potawatomi, operators of Milwaukee’s expansive Menomonee Valley casino (which is in the midst of its own hotel expansion project), adamantly oppose the Kenosha plan. The tribe alleges that the resulting competition would cut the Milwaukee casino’s revenue by 30 to 40 percent and cost 3,000 jobs. But Rory Dilweg, an attorney representing the Menominee, says the Potawatomi are overlooking demand in the Chicago area, which indicates that the number of slot machines and tables in the area could double in size before our lust for the wager is sated.

This article appears in the April 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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