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Ho-Chunk cultural, entertainment campus rendering

A preliminary rendering of the entrance to an expanded Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison casino, which would be attached to a new hotel, conference center and parking.

After years of study, Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison is proposing a major expansion of its casino, a hotel, heritage center, conference center, restaurants and parking garages for its 47.5-acre property on the city’s Southeast Side.

The goal is to create a casino-hotel-convention center campus, and a cultural and entertainment destination, with a modern, forward-looking feel, said Daniel Brown, Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison general manager. The tribe’s investment would easily reach into the tens of millions of dollars, he said.

“We’ve been at this for some time,” Brown said. “We want to add to the attraction of Madison, Dane County and the region.”

The development would offer outdoor dining and activity areas plus an outdoor event space. An existing wetland on the site would be restored and a surrounding prairie and oak savanna would feature interpretive walking paths.

The buildings — except the heritage center, which would be set off from other facilities — would seem like one large structure with strong architecture, he said.

“The architecture is very purposeful,” he said. “It will be very Ho-Chunk, but with an abstract interpretation. It will seem like one big, seamless structure. It wants to make a statement: You’ve arrived in Ho-Chunk country. You’ve arrived in Madison.”

The tribe is scheduled to make an informational presentation to the city’s Urban Design Commission on Wednesday. The development would need city land use approvals and financing and other approvals from the Ho-Chunk Nation legislature.

The tribe has also been working with the city and Madison Area Sports Commission for several years on how to develop city and tribal lands near the interchange of the Beltline and Interstate 39-90. The city’s properties in the area include 82.2 acres envisioned for a community park, 43.5 acres with no identified use, and the 36-hole Yahara Hills golf course on 451 acres.

The city and partners could create a $38.3 million sports complex with indoor and outdoor fields and parking at the intersection of the Beltline and I-39/90 that would turn a profit and boost the economy, said an October 2017 study funded by the city and tribe.

The tribe and city remain interested in further exploring a partnership, officials said.

But the tribe is first seeking to move forward with the entertainment complex, although it lists a 111,000-square-foot dome with a full-size, multipurpose turf field as future use on its land. The city is still figuring out the location, financing and timing of new athletic fields, and the future of Yahara Hills.

“From our side, (the tribe’s proposal) is a reasonable, responsible thing,” city Parks Superintendent Eric Knepp said. “We’ve taken a step back. We have to figure out the golf situation. (But) we still have a long-term interest and need to expand athletic fields in our system. This is a viable location to do so.”

Brown said, “We still see a lot of opportunity for a collaborative endeavor.”

Project highlights

Specifically, the tribe’s proposal includes:

  • An expansion and remodel of the tribe’s existing two-story, 60,000-square-foot casino, built for $8 million in 1999. The casino, which now has 45,000 square feet of gaming space on the first floor, would be expanded by about 20 feet on each side to reach legal tribal trust land boundaries for the purposes of gaming. Food service, offices and other non-gaming uses would be moved to other locations on the campus, resulting in 145,000 square feet of gaming space.
  • A four-story hotel with 150 to 250 rooms, including a 90-seat fine dining restaurant and 30,000-square-foot spa next to a three-story, 1,112-space parking garage.
  • A 33,000-square-foot heritage center offering in-depth history of the tribe.
  • A 15,000-square-foot conference center that could also double as an entertainment venue, which could have a large opening to an adjacent “Great Circle” outdoor space that could accommodate seating for concerts during good weather.
  • A 150-seat restaurant, perhaps a sports bar, between the expanded casino and conference center.
  • A three-story, 908-space parking garage next to the conference center in a second phase.
  • Restored wetland and walking trails near the Heritage Center.
  • Two sites for future development, with a larger one near the hotel a possible location for the covered athletic field.
  • A small food court and “fast casual” restaurant.

Overall, “we want a synergy,” said Missy Tracy, municipal relations coordinator for Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison.

The market can support additional gaming space and the proposal will allow the tribe to maximize potential, with business from various elements providing funds for tribal programs, Brown said.

Sense of history

The heritage center is important to help educate the public on the Ho-Chunk nation’s 11,000-year history in the area, Tracy said.

“It speaks to our sustainability,” she said. “We’re very fortunate to be the aboriginal people in the capital of Wisconsin.”

The wetland restoration and walking trails next to the heritage center will be “a huge element,” Brown said, the concept being “to create a serene, peaceful place.” The design of the larger structure is intended to buffer the center from the nearby Interstate.

The tribe, meanwhile, is hopeful that the state will approve improved road access to the city and tribal lands, Brown said.

Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison hopes to get general city approvals by summer, followed by further approvals for financing from the tribe’s legislature to proceed with more detailed design and city review for specific plans, Brown said.

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Dean Mosiman covers Madison city government for the Wisconsin State Journal.