Native American casino plan wagers on tiny Illinois town

Shabbona, Ill., 70 miles west of Chicago, could be home to the state’s first Native American casino if the Department of Interior approves the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation’s proposal for an electronic bingo hall.
Shabbona, Ill., 70 miles west of Chicago, could be home to the state’s first Native American casino if the Department of Interior approves the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation’s proposal for an electronic bingo hall.
(Anthony Souffle / Chicago Tribune)

Through the window of his grocery store on Comanche Avenue in this town of 950 people and zero stop lights, Tom Wisted has watched the anemic economy force a lumber yard, bank and hardware store to close in the last seven years.

During that time, a plan to bring a Native American electronic bingo hall to a rolling corn field on the outskirts of town has been a symbol of hope and doom. Some see the Kansas-based Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation’s plan as economic salvation; others see it as the ruination of peaceful rural culture.

“I’d do better if it comes this way,” Wisted said one afternoon between customers at Wisted’s Country Market. “But I really feel I have to remain neutral. I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. It’s a small community.”


It may be small, but Shabbona, 70 miles west of Chicago, is setting itself up as something of a national proving ground for Native American gambling. The plan for a 24-hour bingo hall would create Illinois’ first Native American casino, one that could set a national precedent for a growing $29-billion industry and introduce a new form of gambling to the state.

Perhaps the most critical issue is whether the tribe has the legal right to build a casino on the 128 acres it bought for $8.8 million in 2006. To obtain U.S. Department of Interior approval for the casino, the tribe must show, among other elements, that it has a credible claim to the land, that the land would be used to “facilitate tribal self-determination, economic development or Indian housing,” and that the plan would not harm the environment.

The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation contends the land, which borders a forest preserve and Shabbona Lake State Park, is part of 1,280 acres the U.S. government gave to the tribe’s Chief Shab-eh-nay — for whom Shabbona is named — and his band as part of a treaty signed in 1829. The Potawatomi back up their contention with a 2001 letter from the Department of Interior’s solicitor stating that the band “has a credible claim for ... title to this land.”

A group opposing the bingo hall says the land was not formally considered a reservation, merely given to the chief for his personal use, and that he voluntarily abandoned and tried to sell it. Opponents also point to an Illinois attorney general opinion from 2007 that the tribe lacks a valid claim to build and operate a casino on the land.

Another issue stems from a federal policy change on where tribes can place casinos. In 2011, Larry Echo Hawk, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, scrapped an earlier guideline that allowed tribes to establish gambling facilities within “commutable distance” of the reservation, generally considered about 40 miles.

The change, made after consulting with tribal leaders from all over the U.S., created new guidelines that make no specific reference to the allowable distance between a reservation and the location of a tribe’s casino. Since then, the number of applications for tribes looking to place casinos off reservations has grown substantially, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs has approved more applications.

The Prairie Band’s proposal would place the bingo hall about 500 miles from the tribe’s reservation in Mayetta, Kan., one of the longest distances between a reservation and its casino in the U.S.

At two states away, the Shabbona location would stretch that allowable distance considerably and, opponents claim, set a precedent for tribes to open casinos nearly anywhere in the U.S.

It also would bring a video gaming device to Illinois that state law does not cover. The 2009 law that legalized video gambling in Illinois does not specifically allow electronic bingo machines. The project would have 800 machines, plus two bars, a full-service restaurant and “a quick-food outlet.”

It introduces lots of financial stress, family stress [and] some crime. Casinos are hard on communities.

— Peter Dordal, president of DeKalb County Taxpayers Against the Casino

A preliminary report on the project’s impact is expected in October, Department of Interior spokeswoman Nedra Darling said, but a ruling from the department could take years. Documents from the Potawatomi Nation indicate the bingo hall would open in 2018 at the earliest.

Some say it can’t come soon enough.

“Right now, the town is stagnant,” said Dirk Enger, president of Ironworkers Local Union 393 and a supporter of the bingo hall. “It’s not on the map for developers.”

Potawatomi consultants estimate the casino would draw 930,000 people a year, more than twice the 400,000 visitors who come to the state park annually. More than 650 construction jobs would be created, followed by 400 jobs at the facility and a permanent payroll of more than $40 million a year, the consultants said.

As spelled out in a variety of written agreements, local governments and agencies also stand to gain millions of dollars.

“Most businesses want to come into the community and have the community give them incentives to come,” said Denny Sands, a former DeKalb County board chairman and sheriff’s police sergeant who owns the cafe, bait shop and boat rental business at the state park.

“This is just the opposite. The tribe is coming into the community to be a good neighbor, to give back to the community.”

One of the more ardent opponents is Peter Dordal, 59, an associate professor of computer science at Loyola University Chicago who in 2000 moved a few hundred feet south of the land the tribe purchased six years later. He and his wife, Peg, share a red brick house and 8 acres with a menagerie of animals.

Dordal, president of DeKalb County Taxpayers Against the Casino, said the bingo parlor would be next to a forest preserve and state park — hardly compatible uses. In a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Dordal said the casino’s payroll would be closer to $8 million a year, well below the tribe’s estimates.

“It introduces lots of financial stress, family stress [and] some crime,” Dordal said. “Casinos are hard on communities.”

Intoxication, traffic and stormwater runoff from the proposed site to Shabbona Lake also would be detrimental to the natural areas and quiet, rural atmosphere, Dordal said.

Thomas Swoik is another skeptic. The executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Assn. said the state already has more than 34,000 video gaming machines in casinos, bars and other establishments.

“The state is pretty well-saturated,” Swoik said.

But Sands, a lifelong Shabbona resident, said he was impressed during nearly a dozen visits to the Potawatomi casino in Kansas and admires the tribe’s community commitment and respect for “what they consider Mother Earth.”

And he remembered concerns local residents expressed 40 years ago when officials proposed the state park that has become a place that brings economic vitality while preserving the environment.

“There were the same fears that are being brought up now by certain groups,” he said, “and the state park is fine. We’ve had no problems at all with traffic, or crime or other issues that tend to get exaggerated.”

Gregory is a Chicago Tribune staff writer.


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