How about a casino in Kelly?

February 7, 2019

Where the bison and the antelope now play on state land overlooking Kelly Warm Springs, slot machines and poker tables threaten to vie for real estate.

A Kelly casino certainly isn’t coming to the southeast corner of Grand Teton National Park anytime soon, but it’s one theoretical result of a bill that’s moving through the Wyoming Legislature and that has gained co-sponsor support of Rep. Andy Schwartz and Sen. Mike Gierau, both Teton County Democrats.

Schwartz said he became involved so he was positioned to sway the bill’s outcome, adding he’s pushing for an amendment that would also authorize studying land transfers or sales so the Kelly parcel doesn’t get “locked into development.”

“I obviously don’t want to see a casino in Kelly,” Schwartz said. “But I’m also on the bill because I think we need to find a way to improve our income stream coming off our state lands sections.”

The larger goal of House Bill 294, which passed its second reading Tuesday, is to study the economic development potential at select school trust parcels.

That class of land amounts to two sections (each a square mile) per township (36 square miles) in much of Wyoming. The sections were deeded at statehood, and are constitutionally required to generate income for public schools in the Equality State.

HB 294 calls for assessing ways to boost the income from a host of trust parcels that abut interstate highways near Wyoming’s state lines. Added to the bunch in the state’s interior, however, is a 640-acre chunk of land that’s hugged between Grand Teton National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest, the last high-profile inholding in the park that has not yet been acquired by the federal government.

Speaker of the House and bill author Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said he included the Kelly parcel in HB 294 because of its incredible potential value.

“That parcel in Grand Teton, we’re not going to build anything on that,” Harshman told the News&Guide on Tuesday. “But it’s worth more than $40 million. How do we maximize that?”

Harshman said he’s all ears about possibilities for the parcel.

“Maybe the best way is to trade it for forest land near Jackson, or the airport,” Harshman said. “I want to have people come up with proposals that could maximize the value of it forever. ... Maybe people would say we’re going to build a city of the future and invest a billion dollars.

“The worst deal we could do is sell it for 40 million bucks,” he said.

In the past, Wyoming politicians and land managers have met the federal government with open arms when they’ve been able to cobble together funds to buy high-dollar state parcels in Teton Park.

In 2010 the Interior Department and Gov. Dave Freudenthal hashed out a deal that would have conveyed three park inholdings to the federal government, but money wasn’t appropriated in time and a deadline was broken. Still, an 86-acre parcel near the Snake River was bought with $16 million in 2012, and a $45 million purchase of a section in the Antelope Flats area followed in 2016.

Today the only chunk of state land remaining in the area is the Kelly parcel. A 2016 appraisal of the aspen-and- sagebrush-studded school trust section northeast of Kelly put the value at $39 million, a $7 million drop from the previous valuation. Appraisers’ discovery of scenic easements on the land were implicated in the price drop.

National Parks Conservation Association staffer Sharon Mader said talks about an acquisition have been underway, but slowly. Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars — used in the past purchases — haven’t been available recently, she said.

“As we move into the future,” Mader said, “those opportunities could certainly present themselves again.”

Mader said she’d fight any legislation that called for development on the land.

“We believe those lands are an important part of Grand Teton National Park,” she said. “This parcel should be considered separately, because of its unique values to the national park.”

Longtime resident and conservationist Joan Anzelmo said she was shocked the Legislature would contemplate development like a casino in such a prized part of Jackson Hole.

“It would be sacrilegious to use that parcel for anything but the public good,” she said. “A for-profit casino operation in that location would be unilaterally opposed by everyone in Teton County.”

HB 294 falls well short of straightforwardly green-lighting construction of a casino. The bill calls for the Office of State Lands and Investments to solicit proposals and study commercial and residential development, and “sustainable development” of natural resources at select trust parcels. The casino portion of the bill calls for studying development of “limited gaming opportunities,” like “slot machines,” and the card games “blackjack and poker.”

Although casinos are currently illegal, the legislation also calls for identifying “changes to Wyoming law that may be necessary.”

Gierau said he signed on to the bill because it’s innocuous, at this point, and he, too, wanted to help shape it.

“My point is, why don’t we just have a study?” Gierau said. “There are parcels in Teton County that are of high value, every single one of them. We want to be in the middle of that discussion and that’s why I signed onto the bill.”

Schwartz foresees HB 294 advancing with the Kelly parcel included.

“There’s no way I’m getting it removed,” he said. “I’m having a decent session protecting Teton County, but there are limits.”

Harshman emphatically said he’s not picking on Jackson Hole.

“I’m thinking about our state,” Harshman said. “That’s it.”

“It’s our constitutional duty,” he said. “I think it’s smart. We’re talking about raising people’s taxes to pay for state services, and we have this land that’s so valuable.”