Tribal Instincts: Casino head plays his cards right
"We're not a bingo hall, we're a casino," clarified Daniel Brown, 48, executive manager at Madison's only Indian gaming facility, Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison (formerly known as DeJope). While the facility first opened as a paper bingo hall, the 60,000-sq.-ft. building now features 1,140 state-of-the-art class II bingo slot machines and eight poker tables.
"Our payout here is one of the loosest – in the 95th percentile," he said. "It's fairly common to see $4,000 or $5,000 winners." At this writing, a progressive jackpot was valued at $1.2 million, and since January, the casino had paid out nearly $7 million to its guests.
Brown, a full-blooded Ho-Chunk, was born in Chicago but spent the bulk of his life in Indiana. As a child, he frequently visited his Wisconsin relatives and danced at tribal powwows, mimicking the dance steps of others and learning the importance of stopping when the drums stopped. "It's beautiful, really," he said of the native dance.
By eighth grade, he was dancing to a different drummer. At 6-feet tall, he towered over his classmates and longed to become a professional basketball player, but the growth spurt ended as soon as it began. Undeterred, he played high school basketball alongside teammate Steve
Alford, whose stellar career landed him in the NBA and then into college coaching. "He's living my dream!" Brown said of Alford, only half-joking.
Brown earned a criminal justice degree from Ball State University and became a probation and parole agent before moving into retail asset protection for a big-box store.
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, his tribe, formerly known as the Winnebago, was forming its own government, adopting a new constitution, and taking on its ancestral name of Ho-Chunk. In the summer of 1993, Brown was hired in surveillance at the Ho-Chunk Wisconsin Dells casino, where he quickly learned that retail and gaming shared one unfortunate characteristic: Employees carried out the vast majority of scams and thefts.
He served as general manager at the Dells casino for four years before moving to Madison in 2005. In 2007, Brown was elected to the Ho-Chunk Legislature, and at his first legislative meeting, the tribe elected him to a four-year term as vice president. "It was a great honor," he said.
Most recently, Brown has been working alongside Ho-Chunk President Jon Greendeer on the Beloit casino proposal, and he's always working to improve the Madison facility. The recent addition of poker tables, he admits, was not particularly well received at the state level.
"We're still in arbitration with them about that." And though his predecessor tried and was denied a liquor license, he'd like to see a compromise worked out. "I've let my alder know that we're putting data together, but that's a challenge for tomorrow."
Recent plans for a 40-acre Ho-Chunk development around the Madison casino, complete with a new hotel, amusement park/entertainment complex, and restaurants, have been moved to the back burner. "We don't have that tourist/destination niche here," he said. "But we also don't need Disneyland. We'd like something that would be accepted as a great addition to a great city."
He'd rather target more pressing needs, such as expanding the parking lot by at least 400 spaces, or gaining safer, easier road access from the interstate.
Regardless of the various opinions on Indian gaming, Ho-Chunk casinos have pumped life back into the Ho-Chunk Nation.
"Health has improved, life expectancy and housing has increased, and our people have higher self-esteem," Brown said, "but having said that, there's a finite amount of revenue, and health care in the future – particularly with the baby boomers – is pretty daunting. Revenue is gobbled up pretty quickly by services to our people. Our government is no different than any other in that respect."
Which makes him especially proud to fill the niche. "So long as gaming continues, the Ho-Chunk will be fine, but we've also been slow to diversify," Brown said. "If the federal government suddenly deemed gaming illegal, we'd run into significant challenges."
When he's not at the casino, Brown enjoys fishing, spending time on his boat, reading, and working out. An aspiring writer, he secretly hopes to write a screenplay one day, and also professes to be a huge fan of Karl Pilkington of The Ricky Gervais Show.
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