From its beginnings as a bingo hall in a decaying neighborhood to one of the largest attractions in the Milwaukee area, this tribally owned casino is finding success in sharing its wealth.
It was no small gamble in 1991 when the Forest County Potawatomi tribe set out to build an off-reservation casino in a blighted Milwaukee neighborhood.
But over nearly three decades, Potawatomi Hotel & Casino has hit the jackpot, growing from a modest bingo hall into one of the nation’s largest tribally owned casinos – and an important player in Milwaukee’s urban renaissance.
True to the Potawatomi tribe’s values, this casino is not only enjoying its new riches, but spreading the rewards of its success with the Milwaukee community and increasing waves of visitors.
Boasting more than 1.1 million square feet of total space, Potawatomi Hotel & Casino maintains a gaming floor with some 100 table games, 20 poker tables, 3,000 slot machines and 1,350 seats for bingo, in addition to eight dining options and lively entertainment venues that welcome big-name performers. An adjacent 19-story hotel, opened in 2014, features 381 rooms and suites, with additional amenities for social events and business meetings.
“We’ve been fairly successful over the past 27 years, and we’ve grown exponentially during that time, based on the demand of our guests,” says casino CEO Rodney Ferguson. “We’re always looking to improve the quality of our product, expand when it’s necessary to expand and exceed the expectations of our guests.”
Creating one of the Milwaukee area’s top destinations and one of its largest employers was far from mind when Milwaukee’s Indian Community School approached the Potawatomi nation about opening a bingo hall to help the school through hard financial times. Thanks to the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, native tribes and reservations, which act as their own sovereign governments, had just received access to new revenue opportunities through casino gaming. The tribe settled on a location in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley neighborhood, what was at that time a decaying industrial area.
“Over the years, the neighborhood had really taken a turn for the worse,” says Ferguson. “Nobody wanted to do business over there, so the tribe took a chance and opened a 45,800-square-foot bingo hall. When it opened, lots of people were surprised at how well it did.”
Crowds flocked to the bingo hall and its slot machines, added in 1992. Gaming became a 24/7 operation and in October 2000, Potawatomi opened a three-floor, 250,000-square-foot expansion with room for slots, table games, bingo, dining and live entertainment. Over the next several years, Potawatomi welcomed a new poker room, two 500,000-square-foot expansions, and a new parking garage.
As demand grew, casino leaders realized they were missing a key element.
“To have a casino of this size, without a hotel, was unimaginable,” says Ferguson, who joined Potawatomi in 2013 and became CEO in 2017. “I think, at the time, we were either the largest or one of the largest tribally owned casinos in the country that didn’t have a hotel associated with it.”
So, in 2012 ground was broken on a $150 million hotel connected to the casino. When the 19-story hotel tower opened in August 2014, gaming fans took notice. Its 381 guest rooms, including 16 lavish suites, provide floor-to-ceiling windows with sweeping views of the Milwaukee skyline and Lake Michigan.
In recent years, an estimated 6 million people have visited the hotel and its casino each year for gaming, tourism, business meetings and weddings.
“We’re actually in a position where we have to turn away overnight guests on a routine basis,” says Ferguson. “Our occupancy levels are very high, so we know it’s been well-received.”
Answering to continued consumer demand, Potawatomi Hotel & Casino is growing again, this time with an $80 million, 119-room addition to its hotel tower. By the time construction is complete this year, Potawatomi will be the city’s second-largest hotel, with 500 rooms, says Ferguson.
“It’s going to add a lot more value for gamers,” he adds. “We’ll open a spa/salon and some more meeting space to accommodate a high number of meetings and conventions.”
Potawatomi Hotel & Casino now sits on a full two city blocks surrounding its original bingo hall. The casino’s continual growth has proven a boon for its neighborhood.
“Dozens of other businesses have been opening in the Valley. They continue to grow with us,” says Ferguson. “At one end of the neighborhood, we have the Harley-Davidson museum and at the other end you have other industrial businesses and food service businesses. Marquette University has some of its athletic fields right across the street.”
The casino’s popularity has brought new prosperity for its owners, the Forest County Potawatomi tribe. The casino is the tribe’s largest revenue source because by law, it can’t generate taxes on its 12,000-acre reservation in northern Wisconsin.
“Before the casino, just like many tribes across the country, this one was poor,” says Ferguson. “They didn’t have any type of resources other than tobacco shops. So, with the advent of gaming, these tribes can be more self-sufficient to establish homes, medical clinics, education for their membership, and general infrastructure.”
While the casino supports the tribe, the tribe is quick to share its newfound wealth with the Milwaukee community. Since 1994, the promotional Heart of Canal Street games have helped to raise nearly $18 million for area children’s charities, including Big Brothers Big Sisters, Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra, Ronald McDonald House, and various community centers.
“Most tribes haven’t had anything for hundreds of years, other than the land they lived on, and this tribe has come into a situation where it’s been able to generate significant revenues,” says Ferguson, who’s also worked at tribal casinos in Oregon and New Mexico. “Giving back is saying ‘Thank you for coming and spending your money with us. We, in turn, will share some of that back with you, not only through charitable initiatives but with the city and the county.’”
The 2017 Heart of Canal Street bingo games raised some $1.1 million that was shared among nearly 30 local organizations, including Safe & Sound, a nonprofit that helps to improve neighborhoods by increasing dialogue with civic leaders, the police and neighbors. Potawatomi’s 2018 promotion, which wrapped in December, benefitted 31 local organizations.
Ferguson has worked with eight other casinos over his nearly 35-year career, and he believes Potawatomi’s emphasis on giving back stands out among the crowd. But he also knows the hotel and casino’s growth is no accident. He believes it’s Potawatomi Hotel & Casino’s savvy staff and their attention to customers that provide powerful tools for growth.
“Part of the reason we’re doing the expansion is because we listened to our guests ask for it,” says Ferguson. “If you know what customers want, then I think you’ll be successful. If you can deliver in a consistent and concise manner, you should be successful. Talk to guests, talk to customers and find out why they’re coming in through the doors. Is there anything else you can do to improve the product and the service delivery?”