Renderings of the Grand Island Casino Resort
This rendering of the proposed Grand Island Casino Resort shows its location next to the track. It features 116 rooms and three restaurants. DLR Group renderings courtesy of Vincent Fiala.

Grand Island may be best known as the home of the Nebraska State Fair, but someday soon, the Grand Island Casino Resort may get more attention.

When it opens in 2025 at Fonner Park, the casino resort will have 20 live tables, which include blackjack, craps and roulette, 650 slot machines, 116 hotel rooms and three restaurants — a sports bar, a family dining eatery and a rooftop restaurant called “Ruthie’s Steak and Seafood.” 

But residents have mixed feelings about the resort, the first casino resort to be built in rural Nebraska. 

Adam Rivera, a bar supervisor at Tommy Gunz Bistro, a restaurant directly behind Fonner Park off of South Locust street, said he is neutral about the casino, although he believes it will be good for business. 

“I’m not for it, but I’m also not against it,” he said. “I haven’t made a decision of how I truly feel about it. I think it’s going to bring in good traffic to the business. Especially with the restaurant being right behind it. I think it’ll be really good for us.”

Rivera said he thinks the casino resort will attract attention to Grand Island and help other local businesses. 

“I think a lot more restaurants, stores, public places, mom and pop shops are going to get a lot more business,” Rivera said. “I think it’s going to be real good.”

Cindy Johnson, president of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce, agrees with that assessment.

“I have no doubt the hospitality industry will benefit greatly from having the casino,” she said, adding that she expects the city to see additional bookings of trades shows, conventions and meetings. 

The casino “does add another unique element to Central Nebraska,” she said. 

Johnson said casino resort property owner, Elite Casino Resorts Properties, wants the same thing that the chamber and the city want — entertainment for residents. 

“They know what they’re doing,” she said. “They know what’s important to a community of our size. They know what their capacity is, and they have done this before, so the old saying this isn’t their first rodeo. They can recognize and identify issues of concern if there become issues of concern.” 

But the casino itself is an issue of concern for John Price, a maintenance worker at Fonner Park. He said he worries that gambling addiction could develop into a new problem for the city. 

“A lot of people are addicted to gambling and it could be really bad for a lot of families,” he said.  

Vincent Fiala, general manager of the Grand Island Casino Resort, said his goals for the casino resort are to see that guests have an entertaining time in Grand Island and to make sure people play responsibly.

He noted that in Nebraska, people are not allowed to do credit card advances. People can only do ATM withdrawals or cashier’s checks. 

Grand Island already has good infrastructure to accommodate the influx of people coming into town to gamble and stay at the casino resort, Fiala said.

Grand Island is the fourth biggest city in the state — and continues to grow. 

“So that’s a good thing,” Fiala said. “We are the largest city in what they call the tri-city area between Hastings and Kearney, and the city.” 

Fiala said he has met with the fire and police departments in Grand Island and doesn’t think the resort should require any additional safety services.

The city and Hall County also will reap tax revenue from the casino. 

IMG 9435 300x225 - Planned casino resort to bring changes to Grand Island
A temporary casino operating at Fonner Park at the Heartland Events Center is meeting expectations, officials say, and already has put money in the city and county coffers. Photo by Connor Wiseman/NNS

Already, a temporary casino that opened at Fonner Park on Dec. 27, brought in $446,185 in revenue in January, according to the Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission report. The city and Hall County each will get $55,773.   

The temporary casino has 300 slot machines and electronic tables with games of roulette, blackjack and baccarat tables, Fiala said. 

“We’ve never had 500 people on the floor or anything,” he said. “It’s pretty steady, 100 to 200 people, which is kind of what we expect on a Friday and Saturday night.” 

The casino resort, which more than doubles the amount of slot machines and tables, also may feature sports betting. The Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission is working on the details, and Elite Casino Resorts is looking at opportunities in Grand Island as the company has sport books at other properties, Fiala said.

In November 2020, three ballot initiatives were approved by voters and paved the way for gambling in the state. LB429 amended the Constitution to allow gaming at licensed racetracks; LB430 allowed gaming to be conducted at licensed racetracks by licensed operators; and LB431 describes how the taxes would work at racetracks with gambling. 

Fonner Park is one of the five licensed horse racetracks in Nebraska. 

Fiala wants the casino resort, to be built next the racetrack, to be a good experience for everyone. 

“We want to make sure that people come here and have a good time and they leave safely. I mean, that’s really it,” Fiala said. “We’re not here to have people spend more money than they should.”

Connor Wieseman is a double major in Journalism and Sports Media and Communication with a minor in Communication Studies.