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Ho-Chunk may set up in Chicago

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BLACK RIVER FALLS, Wis. - The Ho-Chunk Nation claim a casino near Chicago could be possible, and very profitable for the residents of the community and the tribe.

The nation's only option is on land in the suburb of Hoffman Estates, but a flurry of activity with the community, state and other gaming interests would imply that the ink is almost dry on a compact or contract for construction.

A casino to rival that of its largest competitor, near the Wisconsin Dells is planned, with a water park, museum and amphitheater.

The construction cost of $120 million has been bantered about in the media, but Mark Butterfield, spokesman for Ho-Chunk president Troy Swallow, said the tribe would not divulge any real dollar figures.

Illinois allows for 10 casinos, but the Ho-Chunk do not plan to ask for one of those allocations, Butterfield said. It will go for a compact with a casino on trust land.

The tribe does not yet have a compact, and the land has not been purchased and will have to be taken into trust by the federal government. However, Butterfield said he didn't anticipate any problems with this either.

The state may have a different opinion. Gov. Rod Blagojevich said that he will not support the opening of a tribal casino in Illinois. State legislators from Hoffman Estates and nearby also stated their opposition.

To further the cause of the casino, the tribe has hired former state Attorney General Roland Burris to lobby the state on behalf of the tribe. Burris ran against Gov. Blagojevich in the Democratic primary last year.

The battle may be all up hill for the tribe and its lobbyists. The governor told reporters that he would not dismiss approving a compact for a new casino, but he added, "I wouldn't hold your breath."

He said that the proposed facility would have to come up with a very convincing argument that would also substantially improve schools, health care and public safety before he would take a serious look at it.

"Right now, I'm nowhere near that," he said.

Recognizing the fact that the governor is not on the side of Indian gaming, Swallow said, there would be a lot of "reaching out to the state," and a lot of consultation would take place.

Should the land be taken into trust by the Department of Interior for the tribe, a compact with the state is needed to construct a casino and the governor has said that he will not even discuss the matter this year. He also said he will veto any plans between the tribe and Hoffman Estates.

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Butterfield said that the casino would not be up and running before 2005 anyway.

There are nine casinos in the state. The 10th license is held by a company that went bankrupt, but still lists the license as an asset, Butterfield said. Again, the tribe will not ask for that license.

Opposition from legislators argue that if they let one tribe in others will follow and the state will be open to Indian gaming, something they said they intended to avoid.

The Ho-Chunk own three casinos in Wisconsin, two of which are in remote locations, but revenues from those casinos provide profit enough capital to assist the local communities with services from police and fire protection to infrastructure.

Swallow told a gathering of people at Hoffman Estates that the tribe would do the same for their community and said the facility would not create a Las Vegas type strip, but an attractive enclosed facility.

Opposition comes from the city of Elgin, which hosts a smaller casino, the Grand Victoria that has the state limit of 42 gaming devices, no auditorium and no water park. That facility is taxed at 70 percent of net revenues by the state in order to overcome a financial shortfall.

Community members and officials from Elgin expressed their concerns about a casino with some 6,000 slot machines and 200 gaming tables, an 8,000 seat auditorium, a hotel and water park that does not pay taxes to the state, and that could potentially draw customers away from the smaller facility.

Elgin officials said that their small facility could not construct a hotel or any of the other attractions with the higher tax rate.

Even though the tribe would not pay taxes to the state, agreements with the Hoffman Estates and compact negotiations with the state will provide revenues for both, as all gaming compacts are designed to do.

Should things fall into place and the governor not negotiate a compact in good faith, the tribe has the option of imposing the Secretarial Rule as it applies to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. This could impose a compact on the state.

Tribal officials said they do not want to have to go through that process to acquire a casino.

Northern Illinois is part of the Ho-Chunk traditional lands. There are many effigy mounds in the area that tribal historians and oral history affirms belong to the Ho-Chunk. The Ho-Chunk were mound builders and covered much of southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois and eastern Iowa.

There are 6,200 members of the Ho-Chunk tribe. Most tribal members are located in areas other than Black River Falls, Wis., which is the seat of their tribal government. They are related to the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. After relocation to South Dakota where the land was much different and hostile to their agrarian lifestyle they were again removed to Nebraska where the federal government created the reservation by taking some land away from the Omaha.

Many Ho-Chunk returned to their homeland in Wisconsin and formed a community that has been federally recognized. They then changed their name, Winnebago, back to the original, which is Ho-Chunk.