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Wednesday, August 10th, 2022
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MADISON — Nearly 30 residents showed up Monday to the Bristol Village Board meeting with fliers in hand and lots of questions on their minds about a fast-moving land sale that could bring a casino to the Kenosha County community’s back yard.

They’re most concerned about what they say has been a lack of transparency, with the public kept in the dark until the board inked a rushed letter of intent with a gag order.

“The agenda was vague, and there was no public comment section on the agenda. Details of the potential buyers of the land were not disclosed until records were requested,” said Danielle Whitaker, one of more than two dozen at the meeting with misgivings about the land deal.

Said records were requested by Wisconsin Spotlight after Capitol sources reported the Seminole Tribe of Florida is looking to resurrect its long-dead Hard Rock Casino plan in Kenosha.

“I once again urge you to make the land sale process more transparent … This item has not been on the agenda since a closed session on June 13. There is no community input on the agenda and it was only confirmed through an alert by the village after the flyer went out to the community,” said another Bristol resident, referencing an informational flyer from the group Citizens Against Expanded Gambling.

As Wisconsin Spotlight first reported  the village and its Community Development Authority approved a letter of intent last month in a hastily called meeting that would give Kenosha Landco the option to purchase nearly 60 acres of prime land. The buyer would pay Bristol a total of $100,000 over two years for the exclusive right to purchase the property. The deal could ultimately be worth as much as $15 million for the community of about 5,000 people, located 14 miles west of Kenosha.

The land is owned by the village but is actually located in the city of Kenosha. It’s 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.

While Bristol officials continue to insist they don’t know the buyer’s plans, Kenosha Landco shares the same address as Hard Rock International, operator of a brand of hotels, restaurants and casinos owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Hard Rock officials have not returned Wisconsin Spotlight’s requests for comment.

The deal, mostly shrouded in secrecy, was reported Tuesday in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a small publication with declining influence. The story notes the option agreement includes a secrecy clause stating that “Except as required by law, none of the parties hereto shall, directly or indirectly, disclose, comment or make any other communication concerning the contents of this letter prior to the execution of the Option Agreement without prior written notice to the other party.”

That clause has Bristol residents worried.

“This legal jargon translates to, ‘Keep everything quiet until the option agreement goes through,” Whitaker said. “The letter of intent, which all five board members accepted on June 13, coaches to disclose the absolute legal bare minimum to your community.”

The land sale wasn’t on Monday’s agenda. It’s expected to be up for a final vote yet this month. Residents spoke during the meeting’s public comment period.

Board President Mike Farrell told community members the option agreement does not include any information about a casino project and that the offer was proprietary until it was considered by the Community Development Authority. He reiterated that it would be up to the city of Kenosha to decide land use and zoning questions should the sale be approved.

“The Community Development Authority thought its duty to our taxpayers to accept the offer that we felt was best from the (three) offers we had.,” Farrell said.

The Bristol resident who urged greater transparency, sounded incredulous. She asked the board some tough questions about what she suspects was a lack of due diligence by Bristol officials.

“Did not one person from the CDA or village board ask what the land was used for? Did you all approve without asking any questions? You were elected to be in these seats and your village constituents deserve your due diligence,” she said. “Why would we give up our say on what happens on this land and send it to Kenosha?”

The concern is that the option agreement is a done deal.

Whitaker asked the board to pause in the fast-moving process.

“I specifically ask that you avoid voting on this matter until a Q&A is publicly given so residents have the ability to” give their input, she said.

The board listened, but provided no assurances it would do so.

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