WarHorse Gaming files applications for casinos in Lincoln and Omaha

Lincoln Journal Star
WarHorse Gaming files applications for casinos in Lincoln and Omaha
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That was the sentiment expressed by Dennis Lee, chairman of the Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission, which on Thursday approved the fee structure for gaming licenses, the final step necessary to allow prospective casino operators to file applications.

And at least one casino operator wasted no time in getting started.

WarHorse Gaming, an entity formed by Ho-Chunk Inc. and the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, applied for licenses Thursday afternoon for proposed casinos in Lincoln and Omaha, said Lynne McNally, executive vice president of the horsemen's group.

The filing of the first license applications comes nearly 19 months after voters approved casino gaming at the state's horse racing tracks and about three weeks after Gov. Pete Ricketts, who opposed the effort to approve casino gambling, signed off on rules that the commission approved in December.

Most of the fees were set out in the language of the initiatives that voters approved in 2020, including the fees for casino operator licenses. That license, good for five years, costs $5 million, including $1 million due at the time of application and $1 million paid annually during the license term.

Tom Sage, executive director of the Racing and Gaming Commission, called approving the fees "the next step" in the casino gaming startup process.

"This is huge for our state," he said.

Sage has previously said he expects it will take 30-60 days to process the applications, which will then have to go before the Racing and Gaming Commission for approval.

In recognition that the process will take some time and that potential casino operators can't do much without a license in place, the commission also on Thursday approved giving Sage the ability to grant provisional licenses to casino operators while applications funnel through the approval process.

Those provisional licenses, good for up to 90 days, would not authorize operators to roll out slot machines, but they would provide the documentation necessary for them to get financing, order equipment and start construction.

"The second we get the provisional licenses, we're going to break ground at both locations," McNally said.

She said officials are shooting for a groundbreaking in July in Lincoln.

Plans at Lincoln Race Course call for a $220 million casino project that would include more than 1,200 gaming stations, a 196-room hotel, event space, spa and several restaurants.

That construction project is likely to take 18-24 months to complete, but officials in Lincoln are planning to open a temporary casino floor in the existing simulcast building near U.S. 77 and West Denton Road that would have up to 300 slot machines. McNally said she expects the temporary casino space to open later this summer.

WarHorse is planning a similar casino operation at Horsemen's Park in Omaha, but a temporary or transitional facility with 800 slot machines isn't expected to open until about 10 months after construction starts.

McNally said Thursday that WarHorse is seeking to borrow $560 million to finance construction of its casinos, which also will include one in South Sioux City.

Fonner Park in Grand Island also is planning a temporary casino with about 200 slot machines that it hopes to open sometime in the fall.

The state's other tracks in Columbus and Hastings also are planning to build casinos.

Sage said only WarHorse submitted applications on Thursday.

Proposals for a half-dozen other racetracks with casinos in Nebraska are on hold after the Legislature passed a bill this spring that puts a moratorium on any new operations until the Racing and Gaming Commission completes studies of the horse racing market, the casino gambling market and the socioeconomic impact of tracks and casinos.

McNally said she "couldn't be more excited" after Thursday's Racing and Gaming Commission vote, and she praised the agency's officials and members for the work they did essentially creating a new industry in the state.

"I'm just really happy, and I'm really proud of everybody for all the hard work they did," she said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com.