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International Falls debates proposed casino
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Several hundred people packed a meeting room in International Falls this week to hear Red Lake tribal officials discuss their plan for a casino in the city. There was mixed public reaction to the plan. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
Several hundred people packed a convention center in International Falls earlier this week to hear plans for a casino. The Red Lake Indian Reservation wants to build a facility that would create hundreds of jobs for the struggling local economy. But some community members worry a casino will bring nothing but trouble.

International Falls, Minn. — The casino has been the talk of the town in International Falls. Judging from a show of hands at the public meeting, the community is evenly split over the idea. Tom Manka, a retired school teacher, took out an ad in the local paper inviting people to show up to oppose the plan.

"I am absolutely against gambling, and I think it's giving the wrong message to the children that it's OK to gamble," said Manka. "I have seen people lose their homes, their cars and their families due to gambling. And I just can't see going with that in our town."

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Image Gene McArthur, Red Lake band's business development director

The Red Lake Band of Ojibwe already operates casinos in Thief River Falls, Warroad and Red Lake. A gaming agreement with the state says they can build one more. And Red Lake wants to put it near a busy highway on the west side of International Falls.

The casino would be alcohol free. It would include 400 slot machines, eight blackjack tables, a restaurant and, eventually, a convention center. Gene McArthur, the tribe's business development director, says putting a casino in International Falls was not Red Lake's idea.

"We were solicited by International Falls," McArthur said. "They came to us, and not even knowing that we have one site left in our compact. So I mean, it's a great match for us."

The idea came from an economic development commission that includes officials from the city and Koochiching County. They've offered to give the tribe the land and put in necessary infrastructure for free.

Like other rural communities, International Falls has struggled to attract businesses, industry and jobs. County Commissioner Wade Pavleck says the situation has become desperate.

"We've lost more population in the past 20 years than any county in Minnesota," said Pavleck. "Our location hurts us. It's just been a tough row to hoe here in Koochiching County," Pavleck said. "Here's an opportunity to create 250 or 300 jobs, a multi-million dollar payroll, and give this economy a boost."

All my classmates have left. There's no jobs here ... all my friends want to come home, but they have nowhere to work. We need jobs in this community.
- Jennifer Scholler, International Falls

Several people at the public meeting stood in favor of a casino. Phil Paulbeck, a local business owner, says the town can't continue to rely solely on the Boise Paper Mill.

"This has the potential of being the most important economic development project since the building of the paper mill," said Paulbeck. "And I think that we're looking the gift horse in the mouth if we discourage these members of Red Lake from locating in our community."

Jennifer Scholler graduated from International Falls High School three years ago. Scholler says she's not surprised young people aren't sticking around.

"All my classmates have left. There's no jobs here," Scholler told the crowd. "I need something in this community if I'm going to stay here and live here and have a family here. All my friends want to come home, but they have nowhere to work. We need jobs in this community."

But several people warned a casino will bring gambling addiction, crime, and other social problems. Wilbur Fast has written letters to the local paper opposing the casino.

"Opposition to the casino proposal is growing," said Fast. "The last chapter in the book has not yet been written. Like Yogi Berra said about the ball game, 'It ain't over 'til it's over.'"

International Falls is 110 miles from the Red Lake Reservation. That distance might discourage tribal members from working there, despite an unemployment rate on the reservation near 65 percent. Tribal officials say casino profits would fund social programs and other economic development projects at home.

A new casino in International Falls is still a long way off. It requires approval from local governments, Minnesota's governor and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Officials say a required environmental impact statement alone could take up to 18 months.

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