Iowa Casino Operator To Bring $100 Million Destination ‘Racino’ To Nebraska

Posted By Russ Mitchell on April 15, 2021

A company behind three Iowa casinos has been named as the developer for a $100 million project at Fonner Park in Grand Island, NE.

Elite Casino Resorts will partner with Fonner Park to develop and operate Grand Island Casino Resort at Fonner Park. Elite and the racetrack venue announced the partnership April 9.

As part of the announcement, Elite Casino Resorts CEO Dan Kehl said:

“We are honored to be chosen to partner with Fonner Park and to join the Grand Island community. The opportunity to help grow the horse racing and agricultural industry in central Nebraska and Fonner Park is exciting. The location and size of Fonner Park and the Grand Island community fits wells in our long-term plan to grow our company. We can’t wait to open the Grand Island Casino Resort at Fonner Park and showcase the quality of our signature Elite amenities.”

Elite Casino Resorts already operates Riverside Casino and Golf Resort, located just south of Iowa City; Rhythm City Casino Resort in Davenport as well as Grand Falls Casino and Golf Resort in Larchwood, which is about 15 miles away from Sioux Falls, SD.

Fonner Park is approximately 150 miles east of Omaha.

Elite also is expanding to the east with Walker’s Bluff Casino Resort in southern Illinois.

Elite has big plans for Grand Island casino

Plans in Grand Island call for 650 slot machines with the ability to increase up to 850. Look for about 20 table games, a sportsbook and show lounge on the gaming floor.

Other planned amenities include:

  • A 116-room boutique hotel with an indoor and outdoor pool
  • Full-service spa and salon
  • Elite’s signature Ruthie’s Steak & Seafood fine dining restaurant
  • A sports bar and grill
  • Family dining and grab-and-go restaurant

Fonner Park CEO Chris Kotulak formed an operator selection committee once Nebraska voters approved a series of casino expansion initiatives in November.

“We were very forthright in saying we don’t want just some big box that’s going to house hundreds of slot machines and then just throw up a hotel. No, we want a destination. …

“Not everybody has to sit down at a slot machine or a table game. We want them to know that they can come for an entertainment experience: A good meal, maybe hear some live music, whatever that case may be. Fonner Park has been the hub for entertainment since 1954. And this is just another spoke in that wheel — a rather large and mighty spoke to be sure.”

Kotulak said Elite Casino Resorts quickly became a favorite among the operator selection committee at Fonner Park:

“We just felt an overwhelming expression of organic hospitality that came from the Kehl family and all of the employees and staff at the Elite Casinos that we toured.”

Nebraska’s casino policy still in development, too

Fonner Park and Elite have the concept — including architectural designs — in place. Now, the groups are waiting for direction from the Nebraska legislature, according to Kotulak:

“I think it is imperative that we do it right. And I’ve been very pleased in the legislative session to hear senators say ‘we want to take our time and make sure we get this done correctly. We want to be the best state in the United States as far as offering rules or regulations for gaming.'”

The November vote in Nebraska ties casino development exclusively to racetracks in the state. Joining Fonner Park as candidates for “racinos” are:

  • Atokad Park at South Sioux City
  • FairPlay Park in Hastings
  • Horsemen’s Park in Omaha
  • Lincoln Race Course in Lincoln
  • Platte County Ag Park in Columbus

Communities can construct new racetracks — with racino plans as an endgame — but Kotulak hopes Nebraska regulators protect the already-established horse racing venues.

“Frankly, anyone that asks for racetrack license now is doing it — without a doubt — exclusively to get a casino. There have been no new racetrack licenses issued since 1956 in Nebraska. So that is really telling. We want a geographic area established so as to not infringe on racetracks that have been producing over the years.”

Elite to employ ‘well over’ 300 in Grand Island

Kotulak said Grand Island would be “a shadow of itself” if not for the horse-racing season at Fonner Park. The community is also home to the Nebraska State Fair, in addition to the horse racing schedule.

The new casino-resort will overlook the fairgrounds, according to Kotulak:

“When the casino is fully operational, we will expect well over 300 employees to be employed by Elite Casino Resorts at the Grand Island Casino Resort. The unemployment rate in Grand Island and central Nebraska is very low. That’s a good thing. It’s not necessarily the best thing if you were trying to recruit 300 people to come and work for you.”

The Fonner Park CEO said Elite has a history of extremely competitive wages and benefits. He adds, “we do feel that Elite will be a very good place to work.”

Photo by Courtesy of Fonner Park
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Russ Mitchell

Russ Mitchell has been covering news and sports in northwest Iowa since 1997, including 11 years as managing editor for one of the most acclaimed community newspapers in the state. He looks forward to keeping readers up to date on the growing sportsbook industry in Iowa.

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