The Nebraska Racing Commission approved on Thursday the fee structure of gaming licenses, the final step necessary to allow prospective casino operators to apply for licenses.
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 Thursday afternoon for proposed casinos in Lincoln and Omaha, said Lynne McNally, executive vice president of the horsemen’s group, as reported by Lincoln Journal Star. The fee approval came a few days after WarHorse unveiled plans to break ground this summer on its casino, racing and entertainment project at the current site of Horsemen’s Park Omaha.
Rendering for the casino at Omaha
The move 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.
Tom Sage, Executive Director of the Racing and Gaming Commission, called approving the fees “the next step” in the casino gaming startup process. “This is huge for our state,” he told Lincoln Journal Star.
Sage previously 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 on Thursday 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 the to get financing and order equipment.
McNally said that the provisional license is vital for ordering gaming equipment, especially considering there are currently manufacturer delays due to supply chain issues.“If we don’t have the provisional license, we can’t put in the order, which delays us even more,” she told Lincoln Journal Star.
WarHorse intends to break ground on the Omaha project sometime this summer. It expects to open a temporary or transitional facility with 800 slot machines about 10 months after construction starts. Meanwhile, the Lincoln casino, which would see the aforementioned opening of a temporary venue, would have up to 300 slot machines during its transitory phase.
According to the Lincoln Journal Star, McNally said Thursday that WarHorse is seeking to borrow $560 million to finance the construction of its casinos.
Rendering for the WarHorse casino in Lincoln
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 also is 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.
Development of casinos will be initially restricted to the six counties -Omaha, Lincoln, Columbus, Grand Island, South Sioux City, and Hastings- with existing racetracks.