Monday, December 5 2022

Developers behind a plan to turn Omaha’s Horsemen’s Park into one of Nebraska’s first casinos are counting on the city to release $17.5 million in tax incentives to see the project through.

OMAHA – The Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission has approved a gaming operator’s license for the future WarHorse Gaming casino, racing and entertainment complex located at Horsemen’s Park in Omaha.

But the commission’s approval was not unanimous on Wednesday, with commissioner Jeffrey Galyen voicing widespread criticism of the bid for the Ho-Chunk Inc-owned resort.

People line up in September at the entrance to WarHorse Lincoln, the first state-licensed casino to open.

KENNETH FERRIERA, Journal Star archive photo

Ho-Chunk CEO Lance Morgan and Nebraska Horsemen Benevolent and Protective Association CEO Lynne McNally filed for license approval on Wednesday to secure $700 million in funding and continue the renovation and expansion of the complex, which began in July near 63rd and Q streets.

The funding will pay for WarHorse resorts in Omaha and Lincoln, McNally said in an interview. McNally pointed out to the commission that the Omaha resort is located directly along a city bus route.

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“We want to be able to hire anyone who wants to work. We have the means to help you get here,” she said.

Galyen, who is a real estate lawyer in Norfolk, raised concerns about real estate uses, the potential for substantial alteration to the racetrack and the commission not reviewing plans before granting the license for WarHorse in Omaha .

In one of his responses to Galyen, McNally said the WarHorse casino partnership is critical to securing the future of Nebraska’s horse racing industry, which has seen declining simulcast revenue.

“Without the casino, none of this is possible,” she said.

At one point, Galyen said he didn’t think the commission could legally approve the grant of the license.

“This question could not have been clearer in my mind. More work needs to be done,” he said. “He’s not ready today.”

Galyen’s fellow Commissioners did not share his view. Commission Chairman Dennis Lee said the commission was able to approve licenses with many conditions.

“I think that if we don’t act, we will not fulfill our duty as commissioners,” he said.

Nebraska voters in November 2020 approved state-licensed racetrack casinos, but it took years for the first slot machine spins.

WarHorse got its license for its Lincoln casino in September, and players invested around $14 million in slots in the first week.

WarHorse has set up a temporary casino in Lincoln, including 433 slot machines, to be used during construction of the entire casino, which is expected to include 1,100 slot machines, 100 table games, a sportsbook and horse racing live and simulcast.

WarHorse Omaha does not expect to have a temporary or transitional casino in place at Horsemen’s Park until at least next spring. The casino complex there, when completed, will include over 1,400 gaming positions and a five-story parking garage.

In a 4-1 vote, the commission granted the game license which is contingent on the developers meeting a number of conditions. Galyen was the only dissenting vote. Commissioner Shane Greckel abstained. Commissioner Shelby Bakenhus was unable to vote as she did not attend the meeting in person.

The Omaha resort is expected to open in early 2024.

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