Casinos pull tribes out of despair, but gaming hasn’t been cash cow for all Wisconsin tribes

KESHENA – Customers at the Menominee Casino Resort pull levers or press buttons on slot machines, with occasional breaks to fill small cups at the soda dispensers scattered along the walls. Others cluster around dealers at blackjack tables, communicating only with hand movements.

The machines beep, ring and ka-ching, mixing with a top-40 radio station and the voices of employees checking in with regular players on a recent Thursday morning. More than 26 years have passed since people began pouring into the Menominee reservation to spend money on Las Vegas-style games.

For older generations of Menominee, poverty on the reservation before gaming was virtually a way of life.

“You never could point yourself out because everyone was poor,” said Gary Besaw, a Menominee tribal legislator who grew up on the reservation in the 1960s and 1970s. “You hear the stories now and you say ‘God, were we a sorry lot.’”

Today, American Indian gaming is the biggest economic engine for the Menominee, and the other 10 Wisconsin tribes.

Twenty-five licensed Class III casinos across Wisconsin generated more than $1 billion for tribes in 2011. About $52 million of that money went to the state of Wisconsin’s coffers, the latest figures from the state show. The Ho-Chunk also operate a Class II bingo-slot facility in Madison.

“Gaming is one of the best economic enhancers in history,” said Ernie Stevens Jr., chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, an advocacy group representing 184 tribes that are active in gaming, and an enrolled Oneida Nation member.

Wisconsin’s foray into American Indian gaming has made a tremendous difference for some tribes. But the impact has been less noticeable for others.

The Menominee and other tribes that erected casinos along back roads and sparsely populated two-lane state highways have struggled to share in the riches.

Consequently, their healthcare facilities lag behind. Tribal members rarely, if ever, receive sizable annual checks from gaming revenue. Unemployment is higher than both the state average and other tribes’ rates.

“People think because we got a casino we got everything,” said Tom Maulson, chairman of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “And that’s not true.”

Have-nots: The Menominee fight

As sovereign nations, tribes don’t report publicly how much they make from gaming.

But independent audits that must be made public — a condition of receiving millions in federal aid each year — offer a look at their finances and demonstrate how central a prime location is to success in gaming.

Portions of the Menominee reservation, its boundaries contiguous with Menominee County in the center of the state, remained without electricity until the 1990s. The tribal government building is a former hospital with drafty windows. The Menominee health care center is getting its first upgrade in years to relieve the crowded waiting room and patient exam rooms.

The 235,000-acre reservation has had few additions during the last decade.
One exception — a strip mall with a grocery store and a dollar store near the southern entry of the reservation — is mentioned in almost every conversation with a tribal member.

Today, members live in well-kept — but small and inexpensive — homes with considerable financial help from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Even the Menominee Casino Resort, the tribe’s largest source of income and Wisconsin’s first Vegas-style casino, is a hodgepodge of additions nestled along State 55. The tribe uses the original casino building, a one-story rectangle, as a bingo hall.

Older tribal members remember living on the reservation before the dawn of casinos.

“You invested a lot of time in basic survival, making sure that you and your children had something to eat and that you had shelter over your head,” said Keith Tourtillott, a Menominee who manages one of the tribe’s gaming operations.

“And maybe it wasn’t the best, you know, maybe your walls still had holes, and you could see the outside. Maybe your roof still leaked.”

Much of what the Menominee tribe provides now is financed by its main casino and bingo hall, along with a nearby sports bar with 29 slot machines. Federal and state aid helps keep tribal social and human services running.

In 2012, the tribe transferred $8.4 million from gaming operations into its general fund. That money covered more than three-quarters of all government spending, according to an audit of the tribe.

Another revenue transfer from tribe-owned businesses was about $88,000 from gas station operations.

The tribe also earned about $2.1 million through providing transportation, imposing court fines and fees, and timber harvests at its business entity, Menominee Tribal Enterprises.

“For a tribe as large as ours and a casino as small as ours, the gap (in expenses) is pretty considerable,” said Jim Reiter, an enrolled Menominee and general manager of the Keshena casino. “We do all we can at our smaller level but we do need a boost of some sort.”

About 300 tribe members pick up food packages each month at the Menominee Food Distribution Program, the items varying based on donations. Anywhere from 900 to 1,200 more use the walk-in food pantry.

“(The casino) has helped the people, but there are still a lot without jobs,” said Carol Armstrong, a program assistant at the Menominee Food Distribution Program.

Haves: Oneida recipe for success

The Oneida Nation of Wisconsin reservation, located near Green Bay and roughly 45 miles from Keshena, is a setting of modern structures, including a health and dental center of cool stone and natural wood, a new nursing home for tribe elders and an elementary school custom-built in the shape of a turtle.

Most houses in Oneida are larger than their Keshena counterparts. Many structures have multiple cars in the driveways alongside bright purple garbage receptacles stamped with the Oneida symbol.

The tribe’s casino is located within sight of Austin Straubel International Airport. The entertainment venue is less than 10 minutes from Lambeau Field, where the Oneidas’ gaming funds help sponsor a corporate entrance gate to the venerable Green Bay Packers stadium.

The casino will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year with a $28 million renovation. During that span, the tribe has added a hotel, convention center and concert stage for music venues — all part of the effort to stay near the top of Wisconsin’s casino industry.

“The experience is what makes you decide whether you’re going to come back or not,” said Louise Cornelius, general manager of the casino and an enrolled member of the tribe.

In 2012, the Oneida transferred $110.5 million from gaming operations to the tribe’s general fund — more than 13 times what the Menominee moved the same year.

Other business interests brought in about $9 million that year, covering a fraction of the Oneida’s expenses for health care, a police department, scholarships and individual payments to members, among other social and human services.

“Our budget is nearly half a billion dollars,” said Norbert Hill Jr., an enrolled Oneida and director of education and training for the tribe. “You look at the local governments around here; they don’t even come close to that.”

The strange twist, Hill said, is that the Oneida reservation, west of Green Bay in parts of Brown and Outagamie counties, is on land formerly claimed by the Menominee.

“We made a home here, and I always thank them for giving us a good casino location,” he said. “It’s all about location.”

Leaders of the Menominee tribe, which offers one of four casinos near State 29 between Wausau and Green Bay, say that’s why they need Gov. Scott Walker’s permission for a new off-reservation facility in Kenosha to draw customers from southeastern Wisconsin and neighboring Illinois.

Other tribes asking for approval to build off-reservation casinos include the Lac du Flambeau in Shullsburg, about 30 miles east of Dubuque, Iowa, and the Ho-Chunk in Beloit.

Two of Wisconsin’s least prosperous tribes, the Sokaogon Chippewa Community of Mole Lake and the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, have made unsuccessful attempts to secure off-reservation casino locations.

Both tribes operate casinos that are based in rural areas of northern Wisconsin, with minimal income from other businesses.

Struggles to diversify

Tribes remain divided about the best way to use gaming revenues. Some favor direct payments to enrolled members — known as per capita — while others favor providing public services and infrastructure.

And they still struggle to encourage and nurture non-gaming businesses that are operated by tribal entities or individual members.

According to federal audits, only a few Wisconsin tribes have sizable business interests outside the gaming industry. None of those ventures come close to the revenue that gaming brings in.

Even the Potawatomi, considered to have the most diverse economy among Wisconsin’s 11 tribes, reported 80 percent of the tribe’s budget was covered by transfers from gaming in 2012.

Jeff Crawford, attorney general of the Potawatomi, said he is proud of how far his tribe’s business corporation has come in recent years.

Construction in the Milwaukee area of a data center and a bio-digester to convert food waste to power are two signature projects for the Potawatomi. The two projects are expected to create 15 full-time jobs.

“We weren’t in a position to do something like that 10 years ago,” Crawford said.

The latest Oneida attempt to branch out through an energy plant on the reservation, championed by a tribal business entity called Seven Generations Corporation, led to discord within the tribe instead of economic benefit. The tribe voted in December to dissolve the corporation.

A March meeting is planned to reconsider that vote.

“Unfortunately with this big influx of cash, (gaming) has tended to create a monoculture of economic development,” said Leah Sue Dodge, who is half-Menominee and half-Oneida and writes a blog about the Oneida tribe’s inner-workings.

“The main economic development was always in gaming,” she added.

The gaming culture tends to amp-up tribal members’ expectations for non-gambling business ventures.

Curtis Danforth was one of the first members to use a college scholarship program paid for with gaming revenue to attend the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He grew up in the 1970s on the reservation near Green Bay and remembers teaming-up with friends to push their rusty cars just to get the vehicles started.

Danforth, now 38, started an information technology business in 2005. It’s grown from a one-person company to employing more than 40 people. He dreams about adding employees. He thinks the tribe could help make that happen by giving business to member-owned companies, but worries that there isn’t enough support from tribal members yet.

“Gaming has created a lot of opportunity for us but (at) the same time, we kind of got spoiled,” Danforth said.