The Nebraska Racing Commission on Thursday granted WarHorse Gaming provisional licenses to open casinos in Nebraska's two largest cities. "Good news. We got the provisional licenses for the Omaha and Lincoln casinos!" Ho-Chunk CEO Lance Morgan announced in a Facebook post on Thursday. "Now we can take the next steps to get open."
WarHorse Gaming, an entity formed by Ho-Chunk Inc. —the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska— and the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, applied for licenses for proposed casinos in Lincoln and Omaha on June 2, the same day that the Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission approved the fee structure for the licenses.
Tom Sage, Executive Director of the Racing and Gaming Commission, said that it could take between 30 to 60 days to process the applications, which then have to go on a commission agenda for approval, meaning a final green light by late summer or early fall.
Given that the process is expected to take some time, the commission granted Sage the ability to grant provisional licenses to casino operators while the approval process is taking place. Said provisional licenses are for a duration of 90 days, and although they would not authorize operators to start gaming, they would however provide the documentation necessary for them to get financing and order equipment.
Lynne McNally, executive vice president of the horsemen's group, said that WarHorse intends to break ground on the Omaha project sometime this summer. The entity expects to open a temporary or transitional facility with 800 slot machines about 10 months after construction starts. Meanwhile, the Lincoln casino, which would also see the aforementioned opening of a temporary venue, would have up to 300 slot machines during its transitory phase.
Rendering for the WarHorse casino in Omaha
According to the Sioux City Journal, McNally said last week that WarHorse is seeking to borrow $560 million to finance the construction of its casinos, which also includes a proposed casino for the Atokad track in South Sioux City. There are no immediate plans to apply for a state license for the South Sioux City venue at the moment, as "it's been more of a struggle to line up financing for that project, due to a saturated gaming market in metro Sioux City," Morgan first told the cited source last year.
WarHorse's focus is now on the Omaha and Lincoln casinos. Once they're up and running and generating revenue, the group will then turn to develop the $80 million Atokad facility, which is envisioned for a 100-acre site along Dakota Avenue, near Everett's Furniture, as reported by Sioux City Journal. Atokad's lone live day of racing in 2022, the minimum number required to keep its state racing license, is set for June 19.
The granting of the state's first provisional casino licenses comes about 19 months after voters approved a gambling expansion at state horse racing tracks through the ballot in 2020, and three weeks after Gov.Pete Ricketts signed off rules to allow casino gambling in the Cornhusker State.
Most of the fees were set out in the language of the initiatives that voters approved, including the fees for casino operator licenses. That license costs $5 million for a five-year duration, including an initial $1 million payment due at the time of application and $1 million paid annually for the license term.
Rendering for the WarHorse casino in Omaha
Plans at Lincoln Race Course call for a $220 million project that would include more than 1,200 gaming stations, a 196-room hotel, event space, spa, and several restaurants. The construction project is expected to take 18-24 months to complete.
Fonner Park in Grand Island is also planning a temporary casino with about 200 slot machines that it expects to open sometime in the fall. Furthermore, Caesars Entertainment will be bringing a Harrah’s Casino to Columbus, expected to open by the second half of 2023; while the Chickasaw Nation intends to develop a casino and new horse track in Hastings.
Proposals for a half-dozen other racetracks with casinos are on hold after the Legislature passed a bill in April that puts a moratorium on any new operations until the Racing and Gaming Commission completes studies of the horse racing market, the casino gambling market, and the socioeconomic impact of tracks and casinos.