Nebraska’s Fonner Park Poised for Casino

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A view of the horse track field. Harry How/Getty Images/AFP.

Thoroughbred racing is hanging by a thread in Nebraska and the industry has been hoping to get a financial boost by adding casino gambling to its parimutuel netting menu. Fonner Park recently got the green light and it couldn’t come soon enough. 

Governor Providing Infrastructure

Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts has proven to be a good friend of the horse racing industry and Fonner Park is the latest beneficiary of his largesse.

The state received a little over a billion dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and Ricketts earmarked a portion of those funds for improvements to the state fairgrounds, a law enforcement training center, and the horse track all located on Grand Island.

Chris Kotulak of Fonner Park said, “We are on vapors now with our industry and we are in an urgent mode where we have to start showing that money can be provided to these individuals who have dedicated their lives to the racetrack.”

“There would be a mandatory market study, feasibility study. This is such an important industry. We can’t go off willy-nilly without checks and balances and that’s where the Racing Commission comes in,” Kotulak said.

Grand Island mayor, Roger Steele, said, “He (Ricketts) is looking for ways to help Grand Island,” he said. “With the $25 million for infrastructure and water projects at the state fair and $40 million for (the LETC), those are going to be a great benefit for Grand Island and the state. You have to remember, so many officers from around the state are trained right out here, by our airport.”

He added, “I’m very pleased by the governor’s remarks. I think he has our best interests at heart.”

Cindy Johnson, president of the Grand Island Area Chamber of Commerce, expressed her appreciation for the governor’s financial support, “For Grand Island, and Nebraska State Fair and Fonner Park, to make the governor’s budget for $25 million to improve the infrastructure at that site is phenomenal,” she said.

Fonner Park Gets Inside Edge

Most potential casino venues in Nebraska will have to navigate through the red tape, jump over the bureaucratic hurdles, pay a $5 million fee, and wait three years for a feasibility study to ultimately allow them to operate. But Fonner Park and selected horse tracks throughout the state will be allowed to sail through the vetting process and swing open their casino doors in a much shorter time. 

Fonner Park is hoping to open at least a temporary casino before the end of the year which will allow the track to become more financially stable. But having too many casinos in the Cornhusker State will be counterproductive to the horse racing industry it is trying to save. And because of that, Senator Tom Briese proposed a 50-mile radius between casinos to keep competition at a distance.

“Keeping a minimum distance between new casinos I believe is consistent with Nebraska values, consistent with what I believe the voters would support,” Briese said.

“We cannot allow ourselves to get oversaturated or leave the gate open for oversaturation. I’m still concerned about that. My primary concern is the welfare of horses. If we have random slap dab casinos popping up it’s not good for the casino industry, horse industry, or horses,” Kotulak said.

Fonner Park will be partnering with Elite Casinos to build a new facility and the revenue generated from their combined enterprise is expected to keep the jockeys and all of those working at the Grand Island horse track employed for many years to come.