The Ho-Chunk Nation will soon seek permission to serve alcohol at its casino in southeast Madison, which would make it the city’s biggest ongoing entertainment venue with a full liquor license.
The tribe, which voluntarily made its 2,000-person capacity casino the state’s first smoke-free gambling facility in August 2015, is seeking a city liquor license to provide a new amenity to guests, said Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison general manager Daniel Brown on Monday.
Almost all Indian gaming facilities in the state, especially larger operations, have liquor service, Brown said. “It will upgrade the experience for our players,” he said.
The move comes as the tribe and city explore a collaboration that could include a hotel, tribal cultural center and major sports complex involving city and Ho-Chunk lands near the 67,125-square-foot gambling facility at the intersection of the Beltline and Interstate 39-90.
Mayor Paul Soglin and other city officials met with tribal officials about the liquor license Monday afternoon.
“The mayor is not crazy about the idea of having a liquor license at Ho-Chunk,” said Mark Woulf, the city’s food and alcohol policy coordinator, noting Soglin’s concern about a mix of alcohol and gambling. “But at this point, he will not be standing in the way of a liquor license.”
The casino is well-managed and creates no serious police concerns, Woulf said.
City Council President Denise DeMarb, whose Southeast Side district includes the site, supports an application, which will be made in coming months.
“I am in favor of the liquor license,” DeMarb said after the meeting. “It makes sense for their business model. But they need to come up with a plan.”
Currently, the tribe intends to have a centrally located bar in the casino with servers taking orders from customers in roughly 30,000 square feet of gambling space with 1,200 machines and likely in a 90-seat restaurant, Ho-Chunk officials said. The bar also would serve drinks directly to customers, and there would be some seating, but the intent is not to create a bar that’s an attraction in and of itself, such as a sports bar, Brown said.
The nation opened the facility as Dejope Bingo and Entertainment with a Class II gambling license in 1999, followed by a redesign in 2010. The tribe, which renamed the facility Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison in 2010, has never served alcohol there.
In 2004, the tribe spent at least $1.34 million on an unsuccessful referendum to get a Class III gambling license, which would have allowed games such as blackjack, poker slots and roulette.
A year later, it sought a city liquor license, which was controversial due to the size of the facility and questions over whether it would give it an unfair advantage over bars and restaurants that had to ban indoor smoking starting July 1, 2005. The city can regulate alcohol sales at the facility but lacks jurisdiction to impose a smoking ban on tribal lands.
The nation got a license allowing service in a separate, modest-sized bar room and occasionally in its large bingo hall when entertainment was offered, but not in the main electronic gambling area, during bingo, or in the restaurant. The license, which had a condition allowing police to inspect the premises at any time, was never used and expired in 2007.
As it seeks a liquor license, the nation is also working with city officials, neighboring property owners and others to identify and shape potential uses for almost 48 acres next to the casino. The city also has considerable holdings in the area, including the 36-hole Yahara Hills golf course on 451 acres and two undeveloped sites: 82.2 acres envisioned for a community park and a 43.5-acre parcel with no identified use.
The tribe is conducting a feasibility study on a portion of tribal land that could be developed with a hotel, heritage center, conference space and parking structure, Brown said. It is looking to team with the city to jointly study whether to build a sports complex and playing fields, he said.