Nebraska Board Unanimously Votes to Back Games of Chance at State Fair

  • Sen. Aguilar’s LB371 would permit gambling at the proposed Fonner Park casino during the fair
  • If the bill does not carry, the said casino would need to ‘halt business for 15 days a year’
  • Fonner Park CEO maintained that the closure would have a major negative impact on revenue
  • The property is in the process of selecting a casino operator, with Ho-Chunk Inc. in the running
  • A motion introduced last week seeks to allow full-service casinos with sportsbooks at racetracks
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The Nebraska State Fair Board supports a bill aimed at overturning an 1889 law that forbids games of chance from taking place within proximity of the state fair. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

Overturning century-old state law

The Nebraska State Fair Board has voted to support a bill proposed by Senator Ray Aguilar to allow games of chance at the fair. The board members expressed unanimous approval of LB371 at a January 23 meeting.

board members expressed unanimous approval of LB371

On November 3, 2020, Nebraskan residents voted to legalize casino gambling at licensed horse racetracks. Fonner Park, a thoroughbred horse racing venue right next to the Nebraska State Fair in Grand Island, has plans to build a casino.

If Aguilar’s motion carries when the Nebraska legislature sits on an undisclosed date to vote on the official decision, it would overturn an 1889 Cornhusker State law that forbids games of chance from taking place within proximity of a fair. If, however, the bill does not carry, the proposed Fonner Park casino would need to “halt business for 15 days a year” while the state fair is on, KSNB-TV reports.

According to Fonner Park CEO Chris Kotulak, the closure of the proposed casino would cause a major hit to revenue.

“The wait is on”

While Fonner Park has yet to appoint a casino operator, Kotulak said recently that there are “some fine candidates in the interviewing process — including Ho-Chunk Inc.”

Ho-Chunk, Inc, an economic development entity owned by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, last week flighted a video on LinkedIn showcasing design concepts for three Nebraska casinos, excluding Fonner Park.

Kotulak added that “the wait is on” for the architectural designs of Fonner Park casino to be released. The Fonner Park CEO is, however, working on design plans for the casino, and said the finished article will complement the feel of the fair and racetrack.

“The vibe of the fair and Fonner Park is important, it is wholesome. We’ve been able to do it in a gambling situation with horse racing for coming on 68 years and we intend to do that,” Kotulak concluded.

Forward momentum

Nebraska State Fair Board chair Beth Smith concurred with Kotulak, saying:

No matter how we feel about gambling […] what benefits Fonner, benefits the fair.”

Following Cornhusker State residents’ approval last November for casino gambling to take place at the state’s six licensed horse racetracks, Nebraska Senator Tom Briese introduced LB560 last week. Briese’s motion would allow racetracks to introduce full-service casinos complete with sportsbooks.

Briese championed the proposed legislation on behalf of Nebraskan voters, despite being opposed to it in the past. He stated that the bill “respects the will of an overwhelming majority of the people” while simultaneously upholding measures to prevent gambling-related abuse.