Members of Hastings City Council on Monday approved a pair of articles to allow the construction of a horse racing track and casino in North Hastings.
Prairie Thunder Hastings LLC, with Robert A. Wallace for West Fork Inc., applied for a rezoning from agriculture to commercial enterprise and a conditional use permit for an outdoor entertainment and recreation enterprise on nearly 136 acres located northwest of the intersection of US Highway 281 and 42nd Street.
Council members voted 6-2 on both counts, with Ginny Skutnik and Jeniffer Beahm serving as dissenting votes each time.
The application proposes the rezoning of a small area and a conditional use permit for a small area in the center of the 136-acre property.
Over 70 acres of the site are offered as open or green space.
The developers believe that their plans integrate well and complement the existing surrounding properties.
The area of land to be rezoned was reduced from 50 acres to 38 acres based on public comments and feedback.
There are 722 feet between the northernmost project fence line and the southern edge of the nearest residential properties to the north.
There would be 42 acres of buffer zone north of the racetrack and casino.
Residential and commercial developments are planned for future phases in the land surrounding the casino and race track.
There are 6.5 acres of floodplain in the southeast corner of the farm property that would not be developed.
One race day per year would take place until the end of 2025, followed by five race days between 2026 and 2030, then 15 race days per year from 2031.
Nearly 150 people, including city officials, attended Monday’s meeting.
Five people spoke in favor of the bid with arguments about economic benefits and growth.
Omaha attorney Brian Jorde represented the candidates and presented the plan.
He said the developers were looking at proposals from three potential gaming operators to run the casino. The selected operator would then need state approval.
According to Nebraska law, 20% of gaming revenue goes directly to property tax relief. Of this amount, 70% goes to a property tax credit cash fund, which is distributed to communities in need of property tax relief.
In addition, 12.5% goes to the city and 12.5% to the county. Jorde said it should generate at least $1 million each for the City of Hastings and Adams County.
Realtor Mike Engelhardt said that, based on the proposed $40 million project, he is expected to generate $900,000 in Adams County property taxes each year.
Nearly 30 people spoke out against the project.
Common arguments against the project were that the planned location was not suitable as it is the entrance to town and that the casino and race track would depress the value of the house.
Several people who voiced their opposition were parents of young children who chose to raise their families in Hastings because they saw it as a safe and characterful community. According to them, this designation could be threatened by the presence of a casino and a horse racing track.
Opposition Leaders Tim O’Keeffe, Shannon Hoff and Tiffani Arndt shared statistics showing that the presence of casinos leads to increased crime in the host community, not just at the casino.
In an email to council members, Hoff said 849 people opposed the project in the public records.
Hoff presented council members with compiled documentation of the opposition.
“I was impressed tonight by how many people I heard coming back here – I fall into that category – because of the quality of life,” O’Keeffe said.
He mentioned an assembled group of signatures.
O’Keeffe said that although audience members filled out a checkbox document, they checked off selected boxes that represented their beliefs.
“It reflects for me an introspection and a thought process as to why I am really for or against the casino,” he said.
There were also handwritten comments.
“You might consider it divisive and you might consider it harassment. You might see it in a negative light, but what it is is love for our community,” O’Keeffe said, cradling the documents. “These are people who love this community. These are people who have thought about this process.
In his rebuttal, before the vote, O’Keeffe said opponents were planning a referendum if the casino’s racetrack applications were approved.
He described the C-3 (commercial enterprises) zoning change as a “settlement” land development.
“The idea here is that you colonize the C-3 zoning and conditional use permit,” he said.
This facilitates the progressive development of the property in an “inappropriate and unintentional” manner.
Jorde pointed out that a lot of people talk about morality.
“There’s nothing I can say or anyone on Earth can say to change my mind,” he said. “I’m not here to change their minds. I’m here to bring it back to what it’s really about, which is land use.
He said there was no valid argument as to why the land couldn’t be zoned C-3 when neighboring businesses across 42nd Street are already zoned C-3.
“We are here for C-3,” he said.
The land in question has been available for years.
“Anyone could have bought it,” he said. “There’s all this discussion about what it should be and what it shouldn’t be. The owners of this property have the right to sell it for lawful purposes.
During council’s discussion of the issue, Councilor Butch Eley said there were two sides to every problem.
“I think it’s the minority,” he said of the letters opposing the casino and the racetrack. “Everywhere I go, people tell me ‘Vote for the casino’, ‘Vote for the casino’, ‘What do you think of the casino?’ ‘Vote for the casino.’ ”
He called for support for the project by the silent majority.
Councilor Chuck Rosenberg, who voted against a similar proposal when presented to council in March, said he had kept his word and followed the vote of the Hastings Planning Commission, which recommended approval of this request in October.
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