MADISON — The Seminole Tribe of Florida has cleared a first hurdle in its race to build a Hard Rock Casino in Kenosha, while the public remains in the dark about the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing.
A former Bristol Village Board member fears the community’s leaders are blinded by dollar signs and are fast-tracking a sale that could ultimately hurt the community.
As Wisconsin Spotlight first reported last month, the long-dead casino project is being aggressively resurrected by a tribe with major expansion ambitions.
Wisconsin Spotlight has learned that the Bristol Community Development Authority (CDA) recently approved an offer by the Kenosha Land Co. to purchase some 60 acres owned by the Village of Bristol in Kenosha County but located in the city of Kenosha. The Kenosha Land Co. shares the same address as Hard Rock International, operator of a brand of hotels, restaurants and casinos owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
The tribe is pushing to bring back a scaled-back version of the $800 million Hard Rock Hotel & Casino first proposed in 2013 for Kenosha’s former Dairyland Greyhound Park, Capitol sources with knowledge of the situation tell Wisconsin Spotlight. The 2013 proposal, a joint venture with Wisconsin’s Menominee Nation, failed to receive state approval.
Bristol Village Board President Mike Farrell tells Wisconsin Spotlight that the Kenosha Land Co. came in with the highest offer of three bidders seeking to purchase the parcels, at “somewhere between $15 million and $16 million.” The CDA approved the offer at a meeting last week.
The authority’s recommendation now goes to the Village Board for a final vote, perhaps as soon as next Monday.
Bristol, a village of some 5,000 residents, is located about 14 miles west of Kenosha. The approximately 60 acres is owned by the village but is actually located in the city of Kenosha. The property was part of a land settlement more than a decade ago between Bristol and Kenosha that expanded the city’s western boundary while giving Bristol the right to keep the proceeds from the sale of the property.
So “the use of the land and the future of the land is up to Kenosha,” Farrell said.
And what Kenosha city and county leaders want to do, according to Capitol sources, is bring back the casino plan that fell apart when then-Gov. Scott Walker rejected the proposal seven years ago amid opposition from competing tribes.
Times have changed. Gov. Tony Evers has shown he’s friendly to new gambling houses in Wisconsin’s already-crowded casino landscape, and so is the Biden administration’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Farrell said the future use of the land is not on the table, and that nothing village officials have seen so far refers to a casino. The board president said village officials are happy with the offer.
“The intent is very simply to maximize our return to our taxpayers in the village of Bristol. We accepted the highest offer, and that doesn’t include uses. It’s simply a land sale,” Farrell said.
But it’s not quite that simple.
Critics of the original Hard Rock plan worried a casino would change the character of Kenosha, inviting higher crime and other societal problems and costs. And should the casino proposal receive local, state and federal approvals, the road to gambling expansion on the property will be much easier in the years ahead.
Carolyn Owens, a former Bristol Village Board member who did not seek re-election this year, recently told Wisconsin Spotlight a casino would not be welcome in the community.
“I think the concept would not be popular with the residents of Bristol,” she said. “We’ve tried to keep controlled development. I would be surprised if this community welcomed it.”
Any casino proposal once again would have to receive community support in the regulatory review process.
But the citizens of Bristol, which would abut a casino, would have no say over the development once the land sale goes through.That decision would be in the hands of Kenosha. Contacted late last month, Farrell and the other board members said they knew nothing about the effort to bring the Hard Rock casino plan back. With the exception of Farrell, none of the board members returned multiple requests for comment.
Owens, whose term ended in April, is not happy with what she sees as an attempt by village officials to “fast-track this sale through.” She said she will be at the meeting, and she will be asking questions.
“We weren’t in any kind of debt where we need this kind of money,” she said. “If they want to build something there, fine. But not a casino. That’s going to bring more trouble than we can deal with.
“They’re seeing dollar signs. That’s all they’re seeing. But are they willing to pay the price for a casino?”
Owens said the land in question is located around Frontage Road, next to Interstate 94. There are several businesses in the area, including hotels and a health care clinic. She said the land developers are eyeing for the casino is near the future home of residential and senior housing.
Community Development Authority Chairman Jeff Thompson did not return a request for comment left at his business, Thompson Strawberry Farm. His pick-your-own fruit farm appears to be located within about 3 miles of the 60 acres up for sale.
Earlier this month, the Bristol Village Board received proposals for studies on expanded water and sewage service in the area. Farrell said Bristol and Kenosha are looking to extend water service “through the entire area,” not just on the land sought by the Kenosha Land Co.
Representatives from the Seminole Tribe of Florida did not return a request for comment.
The tribe has been expanding its gaming interests outside of Florida, where its gambling compact with the state was struck down by a federal court in November. The deal would have allowed the Seminole to expand in online sports betting, new table games and potential casinos. Tribal leaders are appealing the ruling.
Among its new developments, the Seminole are building a casino/entertainment complex in Rockford, Ill., about 20 miles south of the Wisconsin border, and 90 miles from Kenosha.