Nebraska Gov. greenlights casino rules; regulator to begin taking applications in early June

Nebraska Gov. greenlights casino rules; regulator to begin taking applications in early June
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Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has signed off rules to allow casino gambling in the Cornhusker State, local media reports. The regulations were greenlighted on Wednesday, and are set to come into effect today, opening the window for potential casino operators to apply for licenses.

While the move is a significant step toward casino gaming launching in Nebraska, coming some 18 months after voters approved a gambling expansion at state horse racing tracks through the ballot in 2020, it will still take a few weeks before license applications can be filed as some hurdles are yet to be cleared.

While the Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission approved licensing forms for casino operators and key personnel earlier this year, at its May 6 meeting, the regulator deferred a vote on the fee structure for said applications, reports Lincoln Journal Star.

This means none of the entities seeking to operate casinos in Nebraska can apply until the commission approves the fees. But a potential date has been set: according to Lynne McNally, executive vice president of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the fees could be greenlighted at the board’s next meeting, scheduled for June 2.

“We’ll be the first ones standing in line to apply,” McNally told the cited source. The horsemen’s group is partnering with Ho-Chunk Inc.-the business arm of the Winnebago Tribe- to develop casinos under the WarHorse brand at racetracks in Omaha, Lincoln and South Sioux City.

Should fees be approved at the June 2 meeting, operators would then be able to apply as early as June 6, according to KOLN. This is a moment stakeholders have been preparing for months now, and are eager to reach.

“Adding casino gambling to this whole initiative, what it will do is authorize the tracks to get a whole lot of money, and that will not only create jobs on the gaming side of the equation, but will also create economic activity in rural Nebraska,” Lance Morgan with Ho-Chunk Inc. told KOLN.

Ho-Chunk has been working for about five years to bring gaming to their War Horse venture, and is ready to start as soon as possible. Given the company is “probably 18 to 20 months away from having a full-blown facility open in Lincoln,” according to Morgan, plans are in place to have an interim gaming facility open “within the next several months.”

Although the full opening of the venue would come about four years after the initial vote to expand gaming, the Racing and Gaming Commission says things have moved as fast as possible. And the regulator is now in the position to finally start accepting applications once the fee structure is approved, the Commission's executive director, Tom Sage, told  Lincoln Journal Star.

“We will hope to be ready to work on the applications as soon as we receive them,” the executive said. The commission is now in the process of hiring enforcement and investigative staff and has the necessary approval to explore contracting with third-party companies to do background checks and other steps necessary in reviewing applications.

According to Sage, it could take between 30 to 60 days to process the applications, which then have to go on a commission agenda for approval, meaning a final green light by late summer or early fall. Meanwhile, Ho-Chunk told KOLN they expect construction to start this fall, and for licensing and fees to be around $5 million.

Ho-Chunk’s plans call for Horsemen’s Park in Omaha to be renovated into a new gaming facility that includes 1,200 machines, live and simulcast horse racing, table gaming, live entertainment, and a sports bar.

Meanwhile, the Lincoln casino, which would see the aforementioned opening of a temporary venue, would have up to 300 slot machines during its transitory phase. Fonner Park in Grand Island, to be operated by Elite Casino Resorts, LLC., will also open a temporary casino, with about 200 slot machines.

Besides the three Ho-Chunk facilities and the Grand Island one, two casinos are planned at racetracks in Columbus and Hastings. Caesars Entertainment will be bringing a Harrah’s Casino to Columbus, expected to open by the second half of 2023; while the Chickasaw Nation intends to develop a casino and new horse track in Hastings

However, the Hastings proposal was voted down in a City Council meeting in March given the proposed location -on the northwest corner of HWY 281 and 42nd street- drew concerns from council members. It's unclear where the plan currently stands, and how the Chickasaw Nation will move forward.

Development of casinos will be initially restricted to the six counties -Omaha, Lincoln, Columbus, Grand Island, South Sioux City and Hastings- with existing racetracks. Legislation passed last month required the Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission to hold up proposals for new racetracks and casinos until socio-economic impact and statewide market conditions studies are finished.