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Caesar's plan gets cool reception
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One of the casinos at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Caesar's is hoping to open a casino in Bloomington, next to the Mall of America. (Photo courtesy of Caesar's Entertainment)
Las Vegas-based Caesar's Entertainment has finally shown its Minnesota hand. After months of quiet lobbying, the company Tuesday made a public pitch to lawmakers for a new, private casino. Caesar's officials have their eyes on a site next to the Mall of America in Bloomington -- but legislators from that area are bristling at the idea of a major gambling venue in their backyard. The package is one of several gambling options that are making the rounds at the Capitol in the final week of the regular session.

St. Paul, Minn. — Plans to raise new revenue through gambling have found new traction in recent years, as lawmakers have struggled with a succession of budget shortfalls. And the churn of proposals is attracting interest from out-of-state groups who detect, perhaps, a new openness to gaming.

Caesar's Entertainment is outlining the most ambitious proposal yet -- a casino and entertainment complex that company officials predict will generate $1 billion a year, with one-quarter of that flowing directly to state coffers. Caesar's Palace president Mark Juliano says almost all of the remaining revenues will circulate in the Minnesota economy.

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Image Caesar's president Mark Juliano

"Salaries and wages, local property taxes -- which can add up on a $600 million property -- food, beverage, paint, uniform, papers, copiers, telephones, and many other supplies. Much of it would be provided by Minnesota vendors," says Juliano.

Caesar's isn't specifically identified in any of the legislation -- but a proposal that calls for licensing a single private casino is seen as a clear vehicle for the gaming company to open its doors in Minnesota. In addition to cutting the state a share of its annual revenue, Caesar's says it will bid on the casino license, which could fetch $200 million up front.

But the financial lure hasn't turned any converts in the site targeted for the casino.

"You're not welcome in my community. We don't want you there," Sen. Bill Belanger, R-Bloomington, says of the Caesar's proposal.

Belanger says Bloomington lawmakers of both parties are united in their opposition to a casino in their city. Caesar's argues that building next to the Mall of America would add to, and draw from, the mall's status as a tourist destination.

You're not welcome in my community. We don't want you there.
- Sen. Bill Belanger, R-Bloomington

During a hearing before the Senate Taxes committee, however, Belanger argued that the company's Las Vegas values are a poor fit for suburban Bloomington. And he scolded the company for making campaign contributions earlier this year that appeared to violate state law.

"You just can't come in here and throw money around and think that you can buy people, and buy this Legislature, with all your money. It isn't going to work in Minnesota," said Belanger.

Caesar's spokesman Robert Stewart acknowledges the donations were improperly handled. They were returned, and he says the lobbyist responsible was quickly let go. But Stewart says Belanger and other Bloomington legislators are wrong if they think a casino would warp their community. Stewart says residents may feel differently -- and should be given a voice at a referendum.

"There's a very easy way to settle the question, both ways. Let the voters in Bloomington decide and let the people of Minnesota decide," says Stewart. "And obviously, whatever they decide we'll be happy with. If the answer's 'no,' we'll be moving on."

The legislation also calls for a statewide vote on whether the state Constitution should be amended to allow a private casino.

The committee also heard plans to build a harness racing track in Anoka and to allow video slot machines in bars statewide. A plan to put slots in the Canterbury Park race track has already won House approval, and anticipated revenue from that plan is a key part of that body's budget-balancing package.

All of the plans, however, are strongly opposed by the established Indian gaming community, which sees the potential competition as a threat to existing tribal casinos. Gary Pipho works at the Treasure Island Casino, owned by the Prairie Island tribe.

"I urge you to look beyond a potential revenue source and see the largest picture, that includes a historically impoverished minority, thousands of families like mine that work for and benefit from tribal gaming, and are able to support their families," Pipho says.

In fact, gaming has divided the Native American community itself. Nine of the state's 11 tribes oppose a plan by the Red Lake and White Earth bands to open a metropolitan area casino in conjunction with the state.

All of the proposals face an uncertain fate this year with the legislative clock fast approaching adjournment. But all parties have indicated they'll return next year, if necessary.

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