Winnebago tribe hopes for economic boost from casino proposal

Construction continues on Ho-Chunk Village on the Winnebago Indian Reservation. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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July 13, 2016 - 6:45am

This fall, Nebraskans may have the chance to vote on legalizing casino gambling in the state. So far, almost all the money to put that issue on the ballot has come from the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe. 


Drive north out of Lincoln on Highway 77 about two hours, and you come to the Winnebago Indian Reservation. Past a few miles of rolling farmland you reach the village of Winnebago, where modest older homes mix with new construction like Ho-Chunk Village, a commercial, residential and industrial development.

On a slight rise overlooking all this is a mirrored office building -- headquarters of Ho-Chunk Inc., an economic development corporation owned by the tribe. Last year, the corporation reported profits of nearly $16 million. Its businesses include government contracting, construction, housing, tobacco and retail stores.

Lance Morgan

In the past year, Ho-Chunk Inc. has spent $1.2 million on a campaign to legalize casino gambling in Nebraska. (To see the latest campaign finance report, click here). Ho-Chunk Inc. president and CEO Lance Morgan said the reason is pretty simple.

“It’s more economic activity, more jobs, more everything. We’re dealing with six, seven generations of poverty and pulling out of that is expensive and takes effort,” Morgan said. 

Morgan said the Winnebago tribe has used gambling revenue to spur economic development in the past, and he wants to do it again.

“The key to our economic success was the tribe’s casino over in Iowa – WinnaVegas. And that provided the seed money to the tribe’s corporation, Ho-Chunk Inc.,” he explained.

Morgan said WinnaVegas, located across the Missouri River near Sloan, Iowa, provided Ho-Chunk Inc. $9 million startup money in 1994.  Since then, the company has grown its assets to $117 million, and employs more than a thousand people, two hundred of them on the Winnebago Reservation.

Tribal Vice Chairman Vince Bass says the economic boost is real, and visible.

“Before, we used to have ‘Indian cars,’ he said, which “only has a couple of gears, no back window, and all beat up, old cars. Now, everybody’s driving nice cars. (And) Almost everybody is living in good  housing.”

Bass said the tribe wants to build on that success towards the goal of economic self-sufficiency. Like Morgan, he thinks more gambling revenue is a way to do that.

In 2012, Ho-Chunk Inc. bought the former Atokad horse racing track in South Sioux City. The ballot measure Ho-Chunk is backing would allow a casino there, as well as at the state’s five other licensed horse racing tracks, in Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, Hastings and Columbus.

But where tribal members see economic development from gambling profits, gambling opponents see an economic downside.

Pat Loontjer

“This money is not going to just descend from Heaven. There’s going to be heartache involved in this,” said Pat Loontjer of Gambling With the Good Life, which opposes allowing casinos in Nebraska. “How could we rationalize doing this and changing the quality of the life we have in Nebraska to benefit whatever group, whether it be the Indians or whether it be Nevada?” 

Loontjer says economic problems on the reservation are similar to those facing many rural areas in Nebraska, and people are free to move away.

“We’ve subsidized the Indians for hundreds of years. There’s tremendous poverty on the reservation, there’s alcoholism, there’s a lot of things where – that’s where they’ve chosen to stay, and that’s what the result was,” she said.

Ho-Chunk Inc. CEO Morgan said people have actually started moving back to the reservation in recent years thanks to the improving economy. But he said even though the reservation economy has gotten better, there’s still a long way to go.

”The reservation has enough of a safety net that you can get by in poverty and be okay. Not great, but you can survive,” he said. “We have a lot of people who are just surviving. So we could use a lot more jobs, I think.”

Watch "Bago Boys," an NET documentary about a high school state championship basketball team from Winnebago.

Morgan said opening a casino in South Sioux City would create perhaps 150 jobs, and maybe win the tribe back some of the market share lost by WinnaVegas when the Hard Rock Casino opened in Sioux City two years ago.

Morgan sees this kind of competition as part of a pattern.

“There’s nothing in our …recorded history where the tribes have had something and it hasn’t been taken away from us, or people attempted to take it  away,” he said.

Election officials are now tallying petition signatures to determine whether or not Nebraskans will vote on this issue in November. An announcement is expected in about a month.

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