MADISON — Some residents in the Kenosha County village of Bristol are worried community leaders are fast-tracking a land sale that could put a casino in their backyard.
And the local government’s failure to clearly alert residents to action on the property is only heightening concerns that the Bristol Village Board is secretly trying to drive a deal that could ultimately prove detrimental to the community.
As Wisconsin Spotlight first reported, the Seminole Tribe of Florida is trying to resurrect its long-dead plan to build a Hard Rock Casino and hotel in Kenosha, according to multiple Capitol sources.
On June 13, the Bristol Village Board in a joint meeting with the local Community Development Authority (CDA) approved an offer by the Kenosha Land Co. to purchase nearly 60 acres owned by Bristol 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 CDA recommended the village take Kenosha Land Co.’s $15.2 million offer, by far the highest of three bids. But not before the joint session met behind closed doors to discuss the proposals. They returned to open session, with the board unanimously approving a motion to accept Kenosha Land Co.’s offer. Bristol’s village clerk said the board approved a letter of intent; a meeting to finalize the sale will be held at a later date.
It was all over within 30 minutes, according to the Village Board meeting minutes. And therein lies the problem.
Former long-time village Trustee Carolyn Owens said community residents have been left in the dark about the land sale and what the land reportedly would be used for.
“I don’t like the look of this all the way around,” said Owens, who turned out to Monday’s board meeting to ask the trustees some tough questions. The land deal was not on this week’s meeting agenda, but several citizens wanted to talk about it.
Board members, particularly Trustee John McCabe, were clearly not happy about having to answer questions about the swift-moving transaction. Things at times got heated, as McCabe took issue with concerns that there was little prior notice provided about such a significant issue.
“We did have an open meeting where people could discuss it two weeks ago,” he said, according to video of the meeting obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight. “Not one person showed up. Not one person called. Not one person emailed. So we did have an open meeting two weeks ago and not one person showed up.”
They didn’t show up, Owens said, because they didn’t know about it. The meeting, she said, wasn’t properly noticed. She said there was key information missing on the first run of the agenda for the June 13 meeting. The CDA meeting does not appear on the calendar.
There was little time to waste, according to documents obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight through an open records request.
Village Administrator Randy Kerkman emailed clerk/treasurer Amy Klemko on June 9, a few days before the meeting.
“…can you see if we can have cda and board meeting Monday at 5:30,” Kerkman wrote, adding “3 offers.”
The June 13 agenda now on the village’s website does note a Special Meeting of the Bristol Community Development Authority and the Bristol Village Board. And it does note the board members would discuss three Letters of Intent to purchase CDA Village owned land located on the east and west sides of 122nd Avenue between Highways’ 50 and K. The agenda states the board would “take any necessary action” upon return to open session.
But it doesn’t mention the size and scope of the land deal. It certainly doesn’t mention the wheeling and dealing going on behind the scenes to bring a casino to the property.
That’s because Bristol Village Board members still contend they don’t know anything about the casino plan. The use of the land will be up to developers and the city of Kenosha, should the sale go through, according to Village Board President Mike Farrell.
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 told Wisconsin Spotlight earlier this month.
Owens said she finds it hard to believe board members wouldn’t know what the Kenosha Land Co., which has the same address as Hard Rock International, intends to do with the land. If they really don’t, Owens said, the trustees have failed to do their due diligence.
Owens, who served on the Village Board for 20 years before stepping down in April, told her former colleagues that it looks like money is driving their decisions, and their failure to be transparent is raising a lot more questions.
“The appearance of a lack of transparency is very evident. Unless there is a legal reason to keep the issue secret, please put the rumors to rest and update the residents on the area in question,” she told the board.
“Is money worth destroying the current lifestyle we all enjoy in Bristol?”