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Nebraska’s racetrack operator seeks to build new casino in Hastings



he operators of a locally owned horse-racing operation in Nebraska are exploring options to open a casino in Hastings in the area of the Adams County Fairgrounds.

Breann Becker, president of FairPlay Park, presented three basic proposals to the Adams County Agricultural Society at its meeting Tuesday evening, Hastings Tribune reports. She said she is willing to work together to come to an agreement that will benefit both parties.

As one of Nebraska’s six licensed horse racetracks, FairPlay Park, operated by Hastings Exposition & Racing at the Adams County Fairgrounds, can add casino gambling to its operation thanks to the passage of Initiatives No. 429, 430 and 431 by the state’s voters in November 2020. The other five tracks are Fonner Park in Grand Island, Atokad Park at South Sioux City, Lincoln Race Course at Lincoln, Horsemen’s Park in Omaha, and Platte County Ag Park in Columbus.

Becker explained that Nebraskans spend nearly $400 million per year at casinos, but the tax revenue from those businesses goes to neighboring states. She said establishing a casino in Hastings will create jobs and provide a revenue stream for property tax relief.

With the passage of Initiative No. 431, state law now includes a taxation rate of 20% on gross gaming revenue generated through racetrack gaming operations. The resulting tax revenue is earmarked as follows: 70% for the state’s Property Tax Credit Cash Fund, 2.5% for the state’s Compulsive Gamblers Assistance Fund and 2.5% for the state’s General Fund. The remaining 25% is remitted to the county treasurer in the county where the gaming operation is located. That tax revenue is to be divided equally between the county and the city where the gaming operation is located.

Becker’s first proposal is to lease the west end of the Activities Building to house the casino and horse-racing facilities. She said more of the parking lot would need to be paved, as well. Another option would be for FairPlay Park to purchase the land and lease it back to the ag society for the fair. In this scenario, the west end of the Activities Building still would be used to house the gaming machines and racing facilities.

Justin Wahl, head of the ag society’s building and grounds committee, said the ag society will have to look at what the proposed changes would mean for the other events held at the Activities Building through the year. “We have to consider events already scheduled and leases up to five years out,” he said. He also said sectioning off a portion of the building could require changes to comply with fire code, as were needed with the addition of the north wing.

A third option would be to lease additional space around the former Bernardo’s building adjacent to the fairgrounds. After purchasing the former restaurant building in 2017, the ag society signed an agreement in 2018 with Hastings Exposition and Racing to use the building for simulcasting of live horse races year-round from across the United States for betting.

But to create the type of facility that could draw customers away from other options that will be cropping up in the state, Becker said, Bernardo’s won’t work. She said the ceilings are too low for the new machine style. She said it would need to be double or triple the size.

Last week, Iowa-based casino operator Elite announced plans for a $100 million casino resort at Grand Island’s Fonner Park. Becker said their operation will remain independent from other casino interests.

At this point, Becker said it’s too early to estimate the cost of the project at the fairgrounds. The plan is to have about 200 gaming machines in use. They have contracted with a company in South Dakota to provide the latest technology.

Scott Schneider, president of the ag society, said he understood the need to move quickly with a competing casino in development in Grand Island but the organization still has to go through the proper process. He said the ag society will attempt to take those steps as quickly as possible to allow Becker to plan accordingly. The building and grounds committee will discuss the options and come up with a proposal to bring before the full board for a vote.

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