HARTFORD - Van Buren County got a casino this year, and its owners report brisk business.
The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians opened the $40 million Four Winds North casino in Hartford Township in late August. It is designed to be a small version of the Pokagons' Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo Township in southern Berrien County.
"It's performing better than we expected," Pokagon Tribal Chairman Matthew Wesaw said in mid-December.
"We think we've got a good brand here in New Buffalo, and wanted our customers and guests to have the same experience in Hartford. The feedback has been very positive."
Opening week concerns about traffic jams never materialized in real life, and that's a good thing, said Hartford Township Supervisor Ron Sefcik. A turn lane was added on Red Arrow Highway at the casino entrance to handle additional traffic.
"It's been extremely smooth. It's just really worked out great," Sefcik said. "There hasn't been any negatives, and traffic has not been a problem. There was good planning by the tribe."
A five-member local revenue sharing board has been established to distribute 2 percent of slot machine revenue to local entities, including the county, township, Hartford city and Hartford school district. The casino slot machine revenues were estimated earlier to be $50 million annually. The first distribution of the slots' 2 percent will be forwarded to the revenue sharing board in the fall of 2012.
Under the current compact with the state of Michigan, the Four Winds North casino could double the number of slot machines from 500 to 1,000. But no expansion plans are in the works for 2012, Wesaw said.
"Until we get a few more months under our belt, to see how it continues and see what happens with the economy, we're just going to sit back and evaluate things."
Meanwhile, the tribe is moving ahead quickly to build a nine-story, 250-room motel and entertainment center, including a Hard Rock Cafe, at its New Buffalo Township casino. Those improvements are scheduled for completion in October 2012.