MATT OLBERDING Lincoln Journal Star
LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts has approved rules to allow casino gambling in Nebraska, but residents are still a long way from powering slot machines.
The regulations approved this week and due to take effect Monday open the window for would-be casino operators to apply for licenses about 18 months after voters approved the expansion of gambling at racetracks in the state.
Earlier this year, the Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission approved license forms for casino operators and key personnel like general managers. But at its meeting on Friday, the board postponed a vote on the fee structure for those requests.
This means that none of the entities seeking to operate casinos can apply until the commission approves the fees, which is expected to happen at its next meeting on June 2, said Lynne McNally, executive vice president. of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. The Horseman Group is partnering with Winnebago-based Ho-Chunk Inc. to build casinos under the WarHorse name in Lincoln, Omaha and South Sioux City.
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Ho-Chunk, an economic development corporation, is owned by the Winnebago tribe.
Assuming these fees are approved on June 2, prospective casino operators could then apply for licenses the next day.
“We will be the first in line to apply,” McNally said.
Tom Sage, executive director of the Racing and Gaming Commission, said he believes the state is in a position to finally start accepting applications, assuming commissioners approve the fee structure next month.
Sage said it was in the process of hiring enforcement and investigative staff, but had approval from commission members to explore the possibility of contracting with third-party companies. and/or individuals to perform background checks and other steps necessary to review applications.
“We hope to be ready to work on applications as soon as we receive them,” he said.
Sage said he expects the applications to take 30 to 60 days to process, which will then need to be put on a committee’s agenda for approval.
That means it will likely be until late summer or early fall before work can begin on the casinos that have been proposed at the six existing racetracks in the state.
Plans for the Lincoln Race Course call for a $220 million project that would include more than 1,200 gaming stations, a 196-room hotel, event space, multiple restaurants, and other amenities such as a spa.
This project is expected to take 18 to 24 months, but Lincoln officials plan to open a temporary casino in the existing simulcast building that would have up to 300 slot machines. McNally previously said it would take a few weeks for the temporary casino to be up and running.
Fonner Park on Grand Island is also planning a temporary casino with 200 slot machines.
CEO Chris Kotulak said he hopes to open a temporary casino on Grand Island after the Nebraska State Fair later this year.
Other casinos are planned in new locations in Columbus and Hastings.
Caesar’s Entertainment is planning a Harrah’s Casino as well as a new equestrian track on a site near the intersection of US 81 and US 30 on the northwest side of Columbus. Officials told the Racing and Gaming Commission on Friday that they hoped to complete the project in the second half of 2023.
The Chickasaw Nation is planning a casino and a new equestrian track in Hastings, but the city council in March voted against allowing the proposed location near Lochland Country Club, so it is unclear where the plan currently stands.
Half a dozen other proposed new racetracks with casinos are on hold after the Legislature this spring passed a bill that imposes a moratorium on any new operations until the Racing and Gaming Commission completes studies on the horse racing market, the casino gaming market, and the socio-economic impact of tracks and casinos.
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