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WarHorse Gaming casino project breaks ground at Horsemen's Park in Omaha

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Developers behind a plan to transform Omaha's Horsemen's Park into one of Nebraska's first casinos are counting on the city to pony up $17.5 million in tax incentives to bring the project over the finish line.

WarHorse Gaming’s long-planned casino, racing and entertainment complex broke ground in Omaha Wednesday, marking a milestone for a development that had to wait for the legislative and regulatory process to play out.

To be built on the site of Horsemen’s Park near 63rd and Q Streets, the project includes renovating the existing Horsemen’s Park complex and adding nearly 67,000 square feet in new construction and expansion.

WarHorse Gaming plans to have the renovated building ready for guests next spring. As the building is being renovated, simulcasting will be moved to a temporary facility that already is in place on the track’s infield.

No date has yet been set for the closing of the existing facility, but it is expected to occur later this fall.

WarHorse Gaming groundbreaking

Lance Morgan, second from right, CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc., acknowledges members of the crowd gathered for the groundbreaking of Omaha's WarHorse casino. From left are Omaha City Council Vice President Vinny Palermo, Winnebago Tribal Council member Ken Mallory, Nebraska Horsemen board member Blaine Adams, Morgan, and Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association President Garald "Wally" Wollesen.

Lance Morgan, CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc. — the parent company of WarHorse Gaming and the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska — said the renovated building will be integrated into the new construction. The entire complex is expected to open in early 2024.

Officials behind the WarHorse project originally had hoped to break ground on the facility last summer and wrap up construction this September. At the time, the cost was projected to be $220 million. Inflation over the last year has pushed those estimates up into the $250 million range.

Despite the projected cost increases, Morgan said officials aren’t planning to ask for more than the $17.5 million in tax-increment financing the Omaha City Council awarded the project last summer.

Cognizant of the controversy that often surrounds TIF requests, Morgan said the company limited its request to infrastructure improvements. More than $6 million of the $17.5 million TIF money will be dedicated to off-site public improvements, including storm-water drainage, utility work and upgrades to Q Street.

“Anyone who’s been down here realizes the road isn’t really ready for prime time. We’re about to have 1 million guests per year, and you’ve got a two-lane road,” he said. “I think it’s incumbent upon us and the city working together in order to get something that can handle the traffic.”

For horse racing enthusiasts, the groundbreaking marked what Garald “Wally” Wollesen, president of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, considers a historic day.

In an interview, Wollesen said the complex should significantly help restore the state’s horse racing scene, which suffered a significant blow with the former Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack’s closure in the 1990s.

“Nebraska has got such a base that has been racing forever. We’ll build it back up,” he said.

Since Nebraska voters passed a trio of ballot measures in November 2020 that allowed for the expansion of casino gambling operations at licensed racetracks, Morgan said the company has been “sprinting” to get everything in place.

But the company had to abide by the legislative and regulatory process that played out over the course of many months. Among the mountain of work that needed to be done was the Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission’s approval last December of 67 pages of rules and regulations for casino gambling. Gov. Pete Ricketts approved the regulations in May.

Now that the regulations are in place, the parties involved expressed relief and gratitude.

“I’m just glad to be here,” Morgan said.

Dennis Lee, chairman of the Racing and Gaming Commission, said he envisions the WarHorse complexes in Omaha and Lincoln helping bolster Nebraska with offerings beyond gambling that include dining, events and concerts.

“It’s going to be a real boost to the economy in many different ways,” he said.

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