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 maneuvers and dealings.
A former member of the Bristol Village Board fears community leaders are being blinded by dollar signs and rushing a sell-off that could ultimately harm 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 within 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-down 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 told Wisconsin Spotlight. The 2013 proposal, a joint venture with the Menominee Nation of Wisconsin, did not receive state approval.
Bristol Village Board chairman Mike Farrell told Wisconsin Spotlight that the Kenosha Land Co. had submitted the highest bid of three bidders seeking to buy the plots, at “somewhere between $15 and $16 million.” . The CDA approved the offer at a meeting last week.
The authority’s recommendation now goes to the village council for a final vote, possibly as early as next Monday.
Bristol, a village of about 5,000 people, is located about 14 miles west of Kenosha. The approximately 60 acres are owned by the village but are actually located within the town of Kenosha. The property was part of a land settlement over a decade ago between Bristol and Kenosha that expanded the city’s western boundary while giving Bristol the right to retain proceeds from the sale of the property.
So “the use of the land and the future of the land depends on Kenosha,” Farrell said.
And what Kenosha city and county leaders want to do, Capitol sources say, is bring back the casino plan that fell apart when the government at the time. Scott Walker rejected the proposal seven years ago amid opposition from competing tribes.
The times have changed. Gov. Tony Evers has shown his support for new gambling establishments in Wisconsin’s already crowded casino landscape, as has the Biden administration’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Farrell said the future use of the land is not on the table and nothing village officials have seen so far refer to a casino. The council chairman said village officials were happy with the offer.
“The intention is very simply to maximize our return to our ratepayers in the village of Bristol. We have accepted the highest offer, and that does not include uses. It is simply a sale of land,” a Farrell said.
But it is not that simple.
Critics of Hard Rock’s original plan feared that a casino would change the character of Kenosha, inviting higher crime and other societal problems and costs. And if the casino proposal receives local, state and federal approvals, the road to expanding gambling on the property will be much easier in the years to come.
Carolyn Owens, a former Bristol Village Board member who did not seek re-election this year, recently told Wisconsin Spotlight that a casino would not be welcome in the community.
“I think the concept wouldn’t be popular with the people of Bristol,” she said. “We tried to keep development under control. I would be surprised if this community welcomed him.
Any casino proposal would again have to receive community support through the regulatory review process.
But the citizens of Bristol, which would adjoin a casino, would have no say in the development once the sale of the land was completed. That decision would be in Kenosha’s hands. Contacted late last month, Farrell and the other board members said they knew nothing about efforts 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 unhappy with what she sees as an attempt by village officials to “rush this sale.” She said she will be present at the meeting and will ask questions.
“We weren’t in debt where we needed that kind of money,” she said. “If they want to build something there, fine. But not a casino. This is going to cause more problems than we can handle.
“They see dollar signs. That’s all they see. But are they ready to pay the price of a casino?
Owens said the land in question is located around Frontage Road off Interstate 94. There are several businesses in the area, including hotels and a health care clinic. According to her, real estate developers are eyeing the casino to be close to the future residential house and housing for the elderly.
Community Development Authority Chairman Jeff Thompson did not return a request for comment left with his company, Thompson Strawberry Farm. His U-pick fruit farm appears to be located about 3 miles from the 60 acres for sale.
Earlier this month, the Bristol Village Board received proposals for studies into extending water and sewer services in the area. Farrell said Bristol and Kenosha are looking to expand water service “across the region,” not just on land sought by the Kenosha Land Co.
Representatives of the Seminole Tribe of Florida did not return a request for comment.
The tribe has expanded its gambling interests outside of Florida, where its gambling pact with the state was overturned in federal court in November. The deal would have allowed the Seminole to expand into online sports betting, new table games and potential casinos. Tribal leaders are appealing the decision.
Among its new developments, the Seminoles are building a casino/entertainment complex in Rockford, Illinois, about 20 miles south of the Wisconsin border and 90 miles from Kenosha.