new warhorse rendering

Developers of the proposed WarHorse Casino in Lincoln say they are ready to break ground the minute they get a gaming license. But it could still be months before they can even start the application process.

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That whir of spinning reels from slot machines is still seemingly months away.

It's been 10 months since Nebraska voters approved casino gambling at the state's horse racing tracks, and while prospective operators have rolled out spiffy videos of planned casinos in Lincoln and other cities, those facilities aren't much closer to reality than they were last November.

Tom Sage, executive director of the Racing and Gaming Commission, said "it's gonna take some time" for the process to unfold.

Sage declined to speculate last week on when the commission will vote on its first casino application, but conceded that it's likely several months away.

"It's a slow process," he told the Journal Star.

The approval process is in its infancy, with the commission having just received a report from a consultant it hired to help write the rules and regulations for casino gaming in the state.

Sage said the report, from Gaming Labs International, will be reviewed over the next week.

During Friday's Racing and Gaming Commission meeting, Sage told commissioners he hopes to have proposed gaming statutes available soon.

A public comment period will follow before the proposed rules will be placed on a future commission agenda for a public hearing and vote, something that seems unlikely to happen until at least November.

Assuming the commission approves the rules, they would then have to be reviewed and signed off on by both Gov. Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson before being officially recognized by the Secretary of State's Office.

That would likely push the start of the application process until early next year.

Once an entity has applied for a gaming license, Sage said there will be a rigorous vetting process that is likely to take a minimum of 30 days, and could extend longer.

Lynne McNally, executive vice president of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, which is partnering with Ho-Chunk Inc. to build casinos in Lincoln, Omaha and South Sioux City under the WarHorse name, said she's not discouraged by the plodding process to get casinos up and running.

"He's making tremendous progress," she said of Sage, "especially considering he's a one-man show."

Sage has some help, but the commission has not yet expanded its staff to deal with the coming deluge of casino applications. He said Friday that the commission will be hiring an attorney as well as gaming investigators over the coming weeks.

Those investigators will likely be very busy once they come on board. All six licensed horse tracks -- including tracks in Grand Island, Columbus and Hastings -- have announced plans for casinos.

There also have been proposals announced for new tracks in Bellevue, Gering, Kimball, Norfolk, North Platte and York, all of which are likely to seek casino licenses as well.

McNally and others have expressed concern about the proposed new tracks, saying they could dilute the market for casino gaming.

Fonner Park CEO Chris Kotulak told the Grand Island Independent last month that there should be "grave concern" in the industry about the potential oversaturation of casinos.

“The best way to dilute and ruin the best potential for revenue is to oversaturate,” Kotulak said.

Sage said the commission has formed committees to look at the new proposals, and he said it's possible some could be granted racing licenses before the casino application process is complete. It's not clear what criteria the commission will use in determining whether to approve a new license.

The commission itself is short-handed, as Ricketts has filled only one of two seats added with the approval of casino gaming in the state. Ricketts has given no indication when he plans to fill the second seat.

McNally said the Lincoln casino is ready to hit the ground running as soon as it can get a gaming license. WarHorse has gotten needed zoning changes on the land at the Lincoln Race Course at U.S. 77 and West Denton Road and has already filed a $160 million building permit for the casino, the total cost of which has been estimated at $220 million.

"The moment we receive a license we'll be breaking ground," she said.

WarHorse also has filed a $2.4 million building permit for work that will transform the current simulcast building into a temporary casino floor with more than 300 slot machines that will operate while the permanent casino is being built, a process that is likely to take 18-24 months.

The Lincoln casino is being billed as the largest in the state. It will have more than 1,200 gaming stations, a 196-room hotel, event space, several restaurants and other amenities such as a spa.

McNally said WarHorse also is moving forward on buying 155 acres of land adjacent to the race course, which will be used to house up to 900 horse stalls and possibly an RV park.

Once the new casino is up and stalls are added, Lincoln Race Course hopes to expand its live racing meet from one day in recent years to as many as 100 days.

Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.

This article originally ran on journalstar.com.

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