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First Nebraska casino gets approval, will open Saturday in Lincoln

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WarHorse Casino at the Lincoln Race Course is scheduled to open this weekend.

The long-awaited opening of Nebraska's first state-licensed casino cleared its final hurdle Friday afternoon, paving the way for the first pull of a slot machine in Lincoln's history.

The Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission voted Friday to grant a permanent gaming license to WarHorse Lincoln, which plans to open its temporary casino at  Lincoln Race Course on Saturday.

The commission's unanimous approval — met with a burst of applause and cheers from a crowd of attendees at the UNL East Union, where the commission meets — comes nearly two years after Nebraska voters overwhelmingly supported a ballot initiative to allow casino gambling at the state's horse racing tracks.

"It is historic by definition," Commissioner Tony Fulton told reporters after Friday's meeting. "It has never happened before."

WarHorse Lincoln will welcome gamblers to its temporary casino at Lincoln Race Course near U.S. 77 and West Denton Road at 10 a.m. Saturday, said Lance Morgan, the president and CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic wing of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and operator of WarHorse.

"We've worked on it for years," Morgan said after the meeting. "And to see it come to fruition is almost surreal, like I'm having trouble believing it. But I know tomorrow, we'll open up, and things will get going."

The commission had been set to vote on WarHorse Lincoln's permanent license in a Zoom meeting last week, but canceled the meeting over concerns among some commissioners about making the decision to grant the state's first permanent casino license in a virtual setting.

"It was an easy concern to address," Commission Chairman Dennis Lee said then. "We just moved it 10 days."

The commission had briefly considered granting the permanent license at its Aug. 31 meeting but decided to hold off because WarHorse still had to test its slot machines and commission officials had not completed background checks on all of the key officials involved with the casino.

The delay turned out to be necessary, according to Tom Sage, the commission's executive director who told the board Friday that WarHorse encountered a "sensitive security issue" this week that wasn't fully resolved until Friday morning.

After the meeting, Morgan said the issue involved a "security door."

The security hang-up — and a 25-minute delayed start to Friday's meeting because of a tardy commissioner — marked the final delays in a two-year gap between the success of the ballot initiative and Saturday's opening. The 24-month holdup has left millions in potential tax revenue on the table, a fact that's not lost on supporters and even some opponents.

Sen. Tom Briese, who is a longtime opponent of expanded gambling in Nebraska but also a staunch supporter of property tax relief, sent a letter to the Racing and Gaming Commission earlier this month reminding members of their duty to enact the will of the voters and to do so as soon as possible.

Briese, who's from Albion, wrote that his office has been getting calls from constituents "who have expressed the belief that the government is dragging its feet with regard to allowing the casinos to open."

In response to those criticisms Friday, commissioners described the two-year process as the genesis of casino gambling in Nebraska and pointed to the importance of ensuring things were done right — and that consumers in the state were thoroughly protected.

"This really was a warp-speed project," Commissioner Shane Greckel said, noting that WarHorse's casino application alone amounted to thousands of pages of documents that had to be reviewed and approved.

And Lee, the commission's chairman, pointed to the small number of state employees who were tasked with morphing the ballot initiative into a functioning gaming ecosystem.

"(When the initiative passed), the commission had two full-time staff," he said, drawing comparison to the Nebraska Wheat Board and its small number of staff members. Lee said the commission's staff has grown to 10 since the November 2020 vote.

"And since that time, we've adopted extensive rules and regulations; we've had public hearings on those rules and regulations," Lee said.

Now, the delay is over.

Casino, 9.20

On Saturday, gamblers will walk into the temporary casino at WarHorse Lincoln for the first time.

Friday's vote allows for the immediate opening of WarHorse's temporary site with 433 slot machines, which will run the gamut from classic slot machine games people find at the casinos in Council Bluffs, Iowa, to games that are so new they will only be found at the casino in Lincoln.

While the temporary casino is in place, a new casino-resort will be under construction at the Lincoln Race Course site.

The plan is to add to the current building on the north, south and east sides, leading to a casino with more than 1,100 slot machines, 100 table games, a sportsbook and both live and simulcast horse racing. The complex will also include several dining options, including a steakhouse, sports bar and café. Plans also call for a 200-room hotel and a three-story parking garage.

Lynne McNally of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, a partner with WarHorse on the Lincoln project, said the current projected opening date for the casino resort is November 2024.

And similar efforts are already underway elsewhere.

Fonner Park in Grand Island hopes to open a temporary casino sometime around Thanksgiving that will have 300 slot machines, although it has not formally requested its permanent gaming license. A request to remodel the Fonner Park racing facility to make room for the temporary casino was tabled at Friday's meeting.

Caesars Entertainment announced this week that it has signed a lease with the Platte County Agricultural Society to operate a temporary casino in Columbus with 250 slot machines. No timeline for opening has been announced.

WarHorse also plans to open a temporary or transitional casino at Horsemen's Park in Omaha with 800 slot machines, but it's not expected to open until sometime in the spring.

"I think that, what it does, is give you a taste of what's coming," Morgan said of Lincoln's temporary casino. "The facilities in Omaha and Lincoln, we're spending half a billion dollars on them. And it's really going to be first-rate facilities."

The ballot measure backed by voters in 2020 paved the way for casinos at the state's six licensed horse racing tracks, including tracks in South Sioux City and Hastings.

Other cities have come forward with casino proposals since the vote, but any new projects won't happen until the Racing and Gaming Commission completes a market analysis focused on both horse racing and gambling.

Commissioners on Friday also voted to create a committee on problem gambling and sex trafficking, which Lee said is the first of its kind in North America.

The committee will bring together commissioners, investigators, advocates and state and federal law enforcement officials to address ongoing problem gambling and human-trafficking issues in the state, Lee said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or awegley@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @andrewwegley

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