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Ricketts signs off on Nebraska casino rules but first bets are still months away

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WarHorse casino

Developers of the proposed WarHorse Casino in Lincoln will soon be able to apply for a license.

Gov. Pete Ricketts signed off Wednesday on rules to allow casino gaming in Nebraska, but residents are still a ways off from feeding slot machines.

The regulations approved this week and set to go into effect Monday open the window for potential casino operators to apply for licenses some 18 months after voters approved expanded gambling at the state's horse racing tracks.

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But it will still take a few weeks before any license applications can be filed.

The Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission earlier this year approved licensing forms for casino operators and key personnel such as general managers. But at its Friday meeting, the board deferred a vote on the fee structure for those applications.

That means none of the entities seeking to operate casinos can apply until the commission approves the fees, which is likely to happen at its next meeting June 2, said Lynne McNally, executive vice president of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. The horsemen's group is partnering with Ho-Chunk Inc. to build casinos under the WarHorse name in Lincoln, Omaha and South Sioux City.

Assuming those fees are approved June 2, potential casino operators could then apply for licenses the next day.

"We'll be the first ones standing in line to apply," McNally said.

Tom Sage, executive director of the Racing and Gaming Commission, said he believes the state is in position to finally start accepting applications, assuming commissioners approve the fee structure next month.

Sage said he's in the process of hiring enforcement and investigative staff but has approval from commission members to explore contracting with third-party companies and/or individuals to do background checks and other steps necessary in reviewing applications.

"We will hope to be ready to work on the applications as soon as we receive them," he said.

Sage said he expects it will take 30-60 days to process the applications, which will then have to go on a commission agenda for approval.

That means it is likely to be late summer or early fall before any work can begin on the casinos that have been proposed at the six existing horse racing tracks in the state.

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, several restaurants and other amenities such as a spa.

That project is likely to take 18-24 months to complete, but officials in Lincoln are planning to open a temporary casino floor in the existing simulcast building that would have up to 300 slot machines. McNally has previously said it would take a few weeks to get the temporary casino floor up and running.

Fonner Park in Grand Island is also planning a temporary casino with 200 slot machines.

CEO Chris Kotulak said he's hopeful of getting a temporary casino open in Grand Island sometime after the Nebraska State Fair later this year.

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"Much time and effort from the Racing and Gaming Commission has gone into getting us to this important step in the process, and I am grateful we have finally reached this point," Kotulak said. "But there is much more to be approved before any shovels spear the ground.”

Other casinos are planned at new locations in Columbus and Hastings.

Caesar's Entertainment is planning a Harrah's Casino along with a new mile horse track at a site near the intersection of U.S. 81 and U.S. 30 on the northwest side of Columbus. Officials told the Racing and Gaming Commission on Friday they are hoping to complete the project sometime in the second half of 2023.

The Chickasaw Nation is planning a casino and new horse track in Hastings, but the City Council in March voted against allowing it at the proposed location near Lochland Country Club, so it's unclear where the plan currently stands.

A half-dozen other proposed new racetracks with casinos are on hold after the Legislature passed a bill this spring 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.

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

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.

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Business reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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