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Mohegans and Menominee go to the dogs

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UNCASVILLE, Conn. - In an unusual move across state and industry lines, the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and the Mohegan Indian Tribe have taken an option to buy the Dairyland Greyhound Park in Kenosha, Wis.

According to press reports, the option is contingent on Department of Interior approval for the Menominee to open a casino on the site. In a new twist, however, the tribes have agreed to continue to operate the greyhound track, a possible first for Indian gaming.

The interest in operating the dog track looks like a departure for Indian gaming, but it is also a response to potential competition from "racinos," horse and dog tracks with slot machines. Mohegan Chairman Mark Brown told Indian Country Today that his tribe has looked at several possible racino investments outside of New England. He emphasized, however, that it chose to back the Menominee deal because it was a chance to benefit another tribe with far fewer resources.

As owner of one of the world's most profitable casinos, the Mohegan Sun, the Mohegan tribe has adopted a goal of investing to help the economic development of poorer tribes around the country, Brown said. The Menominee have 8,000 members, he said, with a principal occupation of logging. They have highly targeted plans for casino profits, to advance tribal health and education, he said, and the deal made good business sense.

"The pieces of the puzzle came together," he said.

The deal also gives the Mohegans and Menominee a toehold in the racino industry, which the Mohegans have been watching carefully. "We have looked at racetracks in other jurisdictions," Brown said. But he said they didn't go forward because they wouldn't have been working with other tribes.

Pleading financial trouble, traditional racetracks around the country have received state approval to install various forms of slots. A reconfigured "racino" grandstand will open soon at the historic Saratoga racetrack in New York state, although similar plans for Aqueduct in New York City and Lincoln Park in Rhode Island have been delayed by criminal investigations. Voters in Maine approved two racinos in November while rejecting a casino proposed by the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Indians.

In turn, some tribes have begun to invest in racetracks. The Choctaws of Oklahoma purchased Blue Ribbon Downs in Sallisaw, Okla., in November and on Jan. 8 received a pari-mutuel license and 61 race dates for 2004 from the Oklahoma Racing Commission.

The deal for the dog track in Kenosha would eventually transfer the facility to the two tribes and several local investors for a total of $40.5 million. The terms of the purchase option have not been released, although it is reported to run through 2008. Brown said that state and local officials had insisted on a continuation of the greyhound racing.

The Menominee Tribe has long sought an off-reservation casino to supplement its small casino-bingo hotel on its northern Wisconsin homeland. Then-governor Tommy G. Thompson authorized the Kenosha site, 50 miles from Chicago, in renegotiating the Menominee gaming compact five years ago.

"We are very excited about the prospect of establishing this project in Kenosha, not only because it will be a tremendous benefit to our tribe, but also because it will be a tremendous benefit to the Kenosha community and the state of Wisconsin as a whole," said Joan Delabreau, chairwoman of the Menominee Tribe, in a written statement.

"The people of Kenosha showed in a 1998 referendum that they support the idea of locating a casino in Kenosha. Our research and feasibility studies show a Menominee gaming facility will be a positive addition to the region - it will create thousands of local jobs, bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Kenosha area and provide other local direct and indirect benefits. We have a small, yet strong, new development team that knows the right way to approach a project such as this, and we look forward to working together and creating an open dialogue with community leaders and the public on how best to make this plan a reality."

The Menominee-state gaming compact authorizes a Class III gaming facility, which would include slot machines and other electronic games, pari-mutuel wagering on live and simulcast racing, blackjack, roulette, craps, poker and other table games. In addition, Delabreau said the tribe is exploring other entertainment options.

"The land that is now Wisconsin has been home to the Menominee for thousands of years. We care about this state, we care about Kenosha, and we want to have a positive impact on the future," she said. "We wanted to make sure our plan and team were absolutely right for our Tribe and for Kenosha."

The development includes Kenosha businessman Dennis Troha, who will serve as financial partner and developer through his company, Kenesah Gaming Development LLC. The Mohegan tribe will be a lender to the company and sit on the development board.

According to the tribe's statement, the project must still negotiate intergovernmental agreements between the Menominee Tribe and the City and County of Kenosha, and the tribe must file an application with the BIA to take land into trust for gaming. The BIA must determine whether the tribe's proposal will be in the best interest of the tribe and not detrimental to the surrounding community, and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle must concur with its determination.