After a five-month selection process, Fonner Park has chosen Iowa-based casino operator Elite Casino Resorts, LLC to operate its planned $100 million Grand Island Casino Resort.

The Friday announcement comes after on November 4, 2020, Nebraska voters overwhelmingly approved measures giving existing state-licensed horseracing facilities the ability to offer games of chance such as slots. Almost immediately after, the thoroughbred horse racing facility in Grand Island began accepting proposals to which officials received nine responses to requests and met with eight different operators to hear each of their respective plans.

Stand-out proposal:

According to KSNB Local4, Chief Executive Operator for Fonner Park, Chris Kotulak, and other park officials, said one of the proposals eventually stood out from the others as the right one for the project. The CEO said that after working with the executive board and four past presidents of Fonner Park, they were finally able to reach a decision.

“Unfortunately there are a couple different casino operations that obviously we didn’t go with, that it was hard to tell them no but boy are we in love with who we have right now,” Kotulak said, as reported by the source.

Development details:

Already responsible for a trio of gaming and resort destinations in Iowa, Elite Casino Resorts’ plans for the Grand Island, Nebraska property include a 116-key boutique hotel with an indoor and outdoor pool, full-service spa and salon, gift shop, and a show lounge that will host live entertainment, a 400-stall parking garage, and according to the Riverside-headquartered company’s Chief Executive Officer Dan Kehl, a range of food options, with a rooftop Ruthie’s Steak and Seafood.

Elite’s gaming plans for the 37,000 sq ft casino game floor include 650 slot machines, with the ability to increase that number by an additional 200 positions, as well as 20 table games, a VIP lounge and high limit slots area, and a sports bar with a sportsbook.  The spacious casino floor will connect to the existing Fonner Park structure, which will reportedly receive $3.45 million in renovations.

Costs and expected opening:

Kehl, whose family got its start in the food and beverage industry before transitioning into the gaming industry, said the $100 million investment is to be completed in one phase, with an expected $45 million in “hard construction costs,” in addition to the renovation costs for the existing thoroughbred horse racing facility, which is home to the Nebraska State Fair. Grand Island Casino Resort is expected to open its doors in about two years, as reported by KSNB Local4.

Daily newspaper, the Lincoln Journal Star reports Elite officials plan to hire some 400 people for the operation. According to the news agency, Kotulak said…

“I had an image in my mind, both architecturally, operationally and a mindset of what I thought would be a good fit for Fonner Park and Grand Island. Elite Casino Resorts quickly rose to the top among our impressive list of candidates.”

Planned NE casinos:

Since last year’s vote allowing casino gambling at Nebraska’s horse racing tracks, three casinos have been announced publicly, with Fonner Park being the most recent.

In December 2020, Ho-Chunk, Inc., the economic development corporation owned by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, established a new division, WarHorse Gaming LLC, announcing that it was moving forward with plans to bring casino gaming to three existing horse racing tracks in the midwestern U.S. state, including Horsemen’s Park in Omaha, Lincoln Racecourse in Lincoln, and Atokad Downs in South Sioux City. The latter was acquired by the Winnebago Tribal economic arm Ho-Chunk in 2012, and the same year closed the track, with future plans to open a casino on the site.

Lincoln plans:

Meanwhile, on January 20, 2021, the Nebraska Horseman’s Benevolent & Protective Association (HBPA) submitted an application to the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Department in the hope of securing a zoning change to accommodate the planned $200 million WarHorse Casino at Lincoln Race Course.

According to the Lincoln Journal Star, in addition to a gaming floor, the 165,000 sq ft casino complex would include conference and event space, a restaurant, a 196-room hotel, which would directly overlook the new seven-furlong track, a spa, bars, and 1,500 automobile stalls in a parking structure next to the complex, and up to 1,200 gaming positions.

The HBPA, which operates the racecourse located off U.S. 77 and West Denton Road and is partnering with WarHorse Gaming on the casino resort, is also reportedly looking to obtain a height waiver that would allow a building up to 100 ft tall. Plans for the new hotel and casino would transform the existing simulcast building and its bar and restaurant.

According to project officials, upon completion of the casino, which WarHorse hopes will be next year some time, as many as 925 jobs could be brought to Lincoln, and it could generate as much as $15 million in state and local tax revenue annually, as reported by the daily newspaper.