Sustainability a driver in Ho-Chunk’s Madison expansion plans

Respecting nature is part of Ho-Chunk Nation’s DNA, and it will play a pivotal role in the tribe’s planned expansion of the Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison site.

The Ho-Chunk Nation’s connection to the land is a core part of its heritage in what they call the Dejope, or Four Lakes region of Greater Madison, and it’s perfectly aligned with their interest in sustainability.

That interest will be reflected in their plans to expand in Madison, according to Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison employees who spoke during the quarterly breakfast of Sustain Dane’s Sustainable Business Network, held July 26 at Goodman Community Center.

Ho-Chunk Nation has amended its constitution to include a Bill of Rights for Nature, which will guide its future plans. “Environmental stewardship is a way of life for Ho-Chunk,” notes Missy Tracy, municipal relations coordinator for Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison.

That stewardship dates back 2,700 years and has withstood many trials. Ho-Chunk people are descendants of the effigy mound builders who were native to the Four Lakes region around Madison. Throughout their history, their dedication to the land has weathered many storms, including four forced removals from Wisconsin to Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Minnesota. Tribal members always found their way back. “We’re known as the people who could not be completely removed from Wisconsin,” Tracy notes.

The tribe, formerly known as the Winnebago, would eventually form its own government, adopt a new constitution, and take on its ancestral name of Ho-Chunk.

With gaming facilities in Madison, Wisconsin Dells, and elsewhere, the Ho-Chunk are now part of the state’s entertainment culture, but gaming has always been an essential part of tribal culture. Gaming revenues now benefit tribal, state, county, and city governments, and they enable to tribe to support vital programs and be self-sustaining.

Let nature be

Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison officials hope to expand while controlling their carbon footprint. In their Madison facility, which features a casino with 60,000 square feet of gaming, more than 1,200 slot machines, entertainment, and a casual-dining restaurant, Ho-Chunk has reduced its lighting costs by roughly $8,000. It did so by converting 280 florescent, sodium chloride, and sodium halite light fixtures to more efficient light-emitting diode fixtures, and adding another 200 LED fixtures.

The Madison facility, which employs 300 people, also uses 15,000 gallons of water on a daily basis and would like to reduce it. It’s also using appliances that are two decades old and would like to replace them with more modern, efficient units, and it would like to reduce storm-water runoff. Management also is looking to replace a few apparatus from its vehicle fleet with compressed natural gas vehicles, and reduce road salt consumption in the winter.

These are short-term goals, and the long term is tied to its expansion plans at Highways 12/18 and the Interstate. A master plan is still under development but the project could include an expansion of the gaming floor and the development of 48 adjacent acres with a sports complex, an entertainment venue, additional restaurants, and a 150-room hotel.

The centerpiece of expansion would be the construction of a Heritage Center, which provides an opportunity to tell the Ho-Chunk story in its members’ own words. With the restoration of natural landscapes, a planned garden, and sustainable educational opportunities, the Heritage Center could promote eco-tourism. Tracy notes that Ho-Chunk history has been preserved by oral history —  “It’s not written down, so we give our elders our undivided attention,” she notes — and would be augmented by the Heritage Center as part of the planned expansion.

Erik Lincoln, maintenance manager for Ho-Chunk, knows conserving water will be a challenge. Possible solutions include rain gardens and the use of storm-water runoff for building operations (diverting some storm water for flushing, for example).

“I’m really looking forward to the opportunity,” Lincoln states. “Hopefully, we create a building here that we can show off, have tours come out, and showcase it to smaller organizations that are thinking about doing some of the projects, all of the projects. Hopefully, it will be a model in the community in sustainability.”

Peter Tan, executive vice president and chief design officer for Strang, is working with Ho-Chunk Gaming on the expansion project. He notes that in addition to the other elements, Ho-Chunk is collaborating with the city of Madison to create a sports complex, which is synergistic because gaming is a big part of their heritage.

“Games are part of how they did things, but the core is the Heritage Center because the goal is to make it a destination,” Tan notes. “First and foremost, it will be a place where the young people in the Ho-Chunk nation can learn about their heritage and by extension the community, as well. It becomes a destination because in many ways, they are the original residents of this region.”

The opportunity to manage storm water is tied to protecting and using wetlands on the site. “We’re tying it with the whole metaphor of who they are and those four lakes,” explains Tan. “One of the concepts they had is that water flows right through the site, and so it’s about tying all the elements together and also using that as a way to manage the storm water on the site.

“For years, people thought of them as swamps, but really they are wetlands,” he adds. “They are beautiful places and we’re just weaving it right trough the whole site, and that’s one of our starting points.”



Superior interior

Ho-Chunk has been incorporating sustainability in all of its Madison operations, and much of the progress has come with a more environmentally friendly approach to maintenance. Paul Bluege, environmental services inventory supervisor for the Madison facility, acknowledges that Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison is now “cleaning more for health than to remove dirt,” which he referred to as “high-tech simple.”

High-tech simplicity entails steps such as changing from caustic chemicals to sustainable solutions, the use of biodegradable gloves, and moving away from cottons to microfiber towels and mop heads. Some changes produce savings, some are more expensive, but “creating a sustainable planet is worth it,” Bluege states.

Some new products have been problematic — biodegradable bags, for example — and scrapped for the time being, but there is still hope in future product iterations. The key thing is to keep trying newer and greener products to see how they work.

Experimentation can bring back-to-the-future change, which is the case with a cleaning solution Bluege developed while using electrolysis. Taking a page from a 19th century British inventor Michael Faraday, who experimented with electromagnetism and electrochemistry, Bluege used electrolysis, water, and a few minerals to develop a cleaning solution that works well on just about anything. Once the engineered-water solution has done its job, it reverts back to water and just a few minerals, he notes, and it’s certified by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I’ve limited it down to three basic chemicals to do our cleaning now,” Bluege explains. “The only real caustic chemicals we’re still using are toilet cleaners, where I really haven’t found anything better — yet.”

Co-existing with creature comforts

Ho-Chunk’s green team will meet this month for focus group discussions on the expansion project, and Tracy reiterated that it must adhere to tribe’s natural bill of rights.

“We’re thinking the big ‘S’ first and foremost,” she says of sustainability.

That’s not to say there won’t be room for modern technology, according to Lincoln, an unapologetic cellphone user. “I love modern conveniences,” he states. “We’re not going back to the days before Wisconsin was colonized. It’s about finding the right balance so that we can co-exist in the world.”

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