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OPINION - The Casino Kunundrum

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Governor Walker will definitely delay a decision on the Kenosha casino proposal. Why wouldn't he? It's a lose-lose situation now.

If he approves it, the Potawatomi will not only withhold future payments to the state, they'll demand refunds of payments they've already made. Their compact, negotiated with then-governor Jim Doyle, protects their casino market in the Milwaukee area. But if they dont make their payments, they'd also lose two-thirds of their slot machines (decreasing from 3,000 to 1,000) which is also part of their compact. In other words, the tribe and the state would both lose.

On the other hand, Kenosha has a strong argument for a casino. They're almost an hour south of Milwaukee, so its a stretch for a competing tribe to claim an entirely separate city as their home-market. (What's really in play here is being the first casino that people pass when coming up from Illinois.) Kenosha also is economically depressed, has a shuttered dog track that might be redeveloped, and badly needs the jobs. The Menomonee tribe, which already has federal approval for an off-reservation casino, is wondering why a casino up the road has the right to block their plans.

The latest proposal is that the Kenosha casino, if allowed, would make payments to other tribes whose gaming interests are damaged. Exactly how those losses would be determined would be complicated and imperfect. It is also an important clue about how lucrative a Kenosha casino might be.

I have a different idea, although it would require a level of cooperation that hasnt been seen so far. The casino interests in Milwaukee and Kenosha should become partners. They should share the revenues from both locations. This would have the added benefit of allowing the two casinos to differentiate themselves. Perhaps the Kenosha site becomes mostly a smaller day-trip casino, with the Hard Rock Cafe theme that appeals to a younger crowd. Perhaps the Milwaukee site becomes more of a destination-vacation location, with its resort hotel and upscale restaurants. The two sites would emphasize their differences -- hoping to grow the market that both would share in.

If it works, that could become a model for all Indian casinos in the state. All the revenue goes into one account, to be divided up based on a formula that the tribes agree to. Under this "partnership model" we'd do away with seeing how close we can put casinos to each other. Different casinos can become known for different things. The tribes (and the state) can market all of Wisconsin as a gaming destination. My gut tells me there'd be more money for everyone, and the squabbles of today would be over.

Chris Conley

8.29.14

IMAGE: The proposed Hard Rock casino in Kenosha, submitted photo