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Tribes object to expansion of Ho-Chunk casino in Wittenberg

A rendering of the proposed $33 million Ho-Chunk expansion in Wittenberg.

Two Wisconsin Indian tribes, including a small northern band, are raising concerns about another tribe’s expansion of a once-limited gambling hall into a larger casino and hotel east of Wausau.

Leaders of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community say the Ho-Chunk Wittenberg expansion could have implications for the state’s other “ancillary” casino sites — which, as detailed in the state’s tribal gambling compacts, are limited in how much space can include gambling.

There are seven existing facilities, which historically have been attached to truck stops and feature anywhere from 80 to about 500 slot machines. The compacts allow for at least five additional ancillary facilities. The state also has 17 full-scale tribal casinos, plus Ho-Chunk Madison, which offers limited gaming.

At issue is the expansion of Ho-Chunk Wittenberg to include a hotel, restaurant and table games, which historically weren’t allowed at ancillary casinos. That changed in 2003 with amendments to the state compacts, according to state officials.

The Ho-Chunk Nation broke ground last month on a $33 million expansion of the Wittenberg facility that will increase the number of slot machines from 506 to 778, add an area with high-limit gaming and 10 table games, and construct an 86-room hotel and 84-seat restaurant and bar.

The Stockbridge-Munsee and Menominee tribes asked the state Department of Administration to block the expansion, saying it violated the terms of the Ho-Chunk’s tribal compact with the state, but last month Department of Administration Secretary Scott Neitzel responded saying the expansion complies with the compact as amended in 2003.

Neitzel noted while an earlier compact limited the number of games offered at ancillary facilities, the 2003 agreement only requires that 50 percent of the site be used for non-gambling purposes.

“(Neitzel’s interpretation) would allow a facility larger than nearly all of Wisconsin’s full gaming facilities,” Stockbridge- Munsee tribal president Shannon Holsey wrote in a letter to Gov. Scott Walker. “If this was the case, the (2003 compact amendment) simply authorized nine major gaming facilities and renders the definition of ‘ancillary facility’ meaningless. This was plainly not the intent of the language.”

Ho-Chunk nation spokesman Collin Price said the tribe’s and state’s interpretation of the compact allows for expanded gambling at its other ancillary sites, but the tribe does not currently have plans to expand those locations.

“This has nothing to do with any other tribe or any other tribe’s compact,” Price said.

In addition to Wittenberg, Ho-Chunk is currently expanding its Wisconsin Dells and Black River Falls full-scale casinos. The tribe has also been in court in recent years successfully arguing that it can offer electronic poker tables at its Dane County location.

Gambling expansion became a major issue two years ago when the Menominee sought permission to build an off-reservation casino in Kenosha. It was opposed by the Potawatomi tribe, which operates a casino in nearby Milwaukee. Walker blocked that expansion, but because the Wittenberg site is on tribal land, he doesn’t have the same authority.

The St. Croix Chippewa broke ground last month on an expansion of their ancillary gaming facility in Webster, according to the Washburn County Register. The expansion includes 250 slot machines — 100 more than currently located at the Little Turtle Hertel Express — a 50-seat restaurant, 16-stall RV park and an 850-seat outdoor amphitheater.

Part of the Stockbridge- Munsee’s concern is competitive. The tribe’s only casino, North Star Mohican Casino Resort with 1,200 slot machines and 22 table games, is about 20 miles east of Ho-Chunk Wittenberg, which is closer to Wausau. Price said the expansion will create 30 full-time jobs in the area, but Holsey said the facility could reduce business and jobs at the Stockbridge-Munsee casino.

State Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, who represents the area, said he is concerned about the effect the Ho-Chunk’s expansion could have on smaller tribes, but he said there may not be anything the state can do, which means it could end up being litigated in court.

“The larger tribes have to be more sensitive to what I would call the less economically advantaged poorer tribes,” Cowles said. “We’ve got a flock of smaller tribes that are struggling. If the larger tribes don’t show some concern about that, it’s not fair.”

‘The larger tribes have to be more sensitive to what I would call the less economically advantaged poorer tribes. We’ve got a flock of smaller tribes that are struggling. If the larger tribes don’t show some concern about that, it’s not fair.’ STATE SEN. ROB COWLES

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.