A temporary casino will begin construction at Grand Island, Neb.’s Fonner Park on Sept. 7, 2022. Expected to open around Thanksgiving 2022 with 300 slot machines and live table games, it will operate for at least two years as the permanent Grand Island Casino Resort gets built nearby.
Since the racetrack is also home to the Nebraska State Fair, construction on the temporary casino needed to wait until after the fair concludes on Sept. 5.
The temporary casino will be housed in the racetrack’s concourse area, which will be demolished in preparation.
“All along, we said we’re not going to just open up some metal shed and throw in some slots and call it done,” Fonner Park CEO Chris Kotulak told the Grand Island Noon Rotary Club, as reported by the Omaha World-Herald. “We want people to have as good a customer experience as they can without the final result.”
The permanent Grand Island Casino will be built starting after 2023 state fair. Its 37,000 square foot gaming floor will boast 650 slot machines and 20 table games, a sports book, four restaurants, a show lounge and sports bar. The plans also include building a 116-room, five-story hotel over the casino, north of an existing clubhouse.
Upon the Grand Island’s expected opening, sometime in 2025, it will provide a seamless connection to the existing racetrack grandstand, according to the project’s website, while also providing great views to the state fair grounds on the west and the horse races on the east.
Fonner Park has contracted with Elite Casino Resorts, which runs three Iowa casinos, to operate both the temporary and permanent casinos.
“In the last couple of months, it’s become more of a reality that this is going to happen,” Kotulak said. “There were a lot of uncertainties with the legislation that we needed to help shore up this new industry in our state. It took quite a bit of help.”
Nebraska voters legalized commercial casino gambling through a ballot referendum during the 2020 election. The outcome allows the state’s six horse racetracks to become full-scale casinos with slot machines, table games, and sports betting.
More Hay For the Horses
With the casino revenue, Fonner Park should be able to boost purses for its races and to host more horses, according to the World-Herald report. Its 1,000-capacity facility has averaged about 750 horses in recent years.
Asked if the casino will “help or hurt” pari-mutuel wagering at the track, Kotulak admitted they have budgeted to “take a hit” with the slot machines.
“We don’t know exactly how that’s going to feel, because what we’ll lose out of our mutuel handle, with the deal we made with Elite, that’s going to help us with our revenue,” he said. “So we’ll be able to put that back into purse money, and if we have greater purse money, we’re going to have more horses and fuller fields.”