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Snoopy's new neighbor -- a casino?
Larger view
Camp Snoopy, one of the main family attractions at the Mall of America. The mall owners are planning a major expansion, which would be anchored by a casino. (Photo courtesy of the Mall of America)
When Gov. Tim Pawlenty unveiled his vision for a new metropolitan casino, he stressed that no community would be forced to play host without its consent. But that hasn't stopped eyes from turning to Bloomington, despite the unanimous opposition of that city's legislative delegation to a casino. Now, developers of Bloomington's Mall of America have proposed building a casino in their planned expansion of the mall. The plan received mixed reactions at community forum Tuesday night.

Bloomington, Minn. — The owners of the Mall of America raised the ante Tuesday on the state's casino debate, rolling out a $1 billion expansion plan they said would make the Twin Cities one of the top tourist attractions in the world.

The catch? The Phase II expansion would have to include a new casino in order to subsidize other amenities, including a concert hall, an ice skating arena, an indoor golf course, public gardens and high-end retail, according to Nadir Ghermezian, president of the family business that developed and controls the mall.

The expansion on the site of the old Met Center would double the mall in size, surpassing the Ghermezian's West Edmonton Mall in Canada as the world's largest.

"When the Mall of America becomes doubled, it becomes a New York or an L.A. by itself," Ghermezian said. "You won't have to fly to Rodeo Drive or New York or Paris - it's all under one roof."

Gov. Pawlenty met last year with the Ghermezian family, and his chief of staff is scheduled to meet with them again Wednesday. Pawlenty's also proposed a state partnership with three remote northern Ojibwe tribes that are seeking a metropolitan casino to break out of their economic isolation. How the two pieces fit together isn't clear.

But Bill Griffith, an attorney who represents the mall, told several hundred Bloomington residents that the Ghermezians are ready to work with all comers.

The day that the Mall of America had its grand opening, I said, 'One day the tail is going to try to wag the dog.' It's finally happened. The mall is so big that they'll try and wag the city.
- State Sen. Bill Belanger, R-Bloomington

"We will work with those who end up as partners in this project," Griffith said. "That's the city of Bloomington, as I've mentioned. It's probably the state of Minnesota in some fashion. And it may be the northern tribes. We'll wait to see how that shakes out at the Legislature."

Following the presentation, Griffith refused to answer questions about how the mall's project could be integrated with Pawlenty's plans for a Native American partnership. The governor's plan calls for a $200 million upfront licensing fee to be paid to the state, and for revenues to be split between the tribes and state.

A representative of the three interested tribes was scheduled to appear at the event but failed to show up. Griffith did, however, stress that the mall developers would seek and incorporate input from the community and elected officials about how to move forward.

The Bloomington legislative delegation has already made its position clear. The six lawmakers are unanimously opposed to a casino. Still, Republican Sen. Bill Belanger says he's not sure the Ghermezians will take no for an answer.

"The day that the Mall of America had its grand opening, I said, 'One day the tail is going to try to wag the dog.' It's finally happened. The mall is so big, you know, that they'll try and wag the city," Belanger said.

Griffith, the attorney for the Ghermezians, said the project won't proceed without the city's support.

"Rest assured, if this is going to happen, it's going to happen with Bloomington's support," Griffith said.

But he asked residents to wait before making up their minds.

"Don't close the door on us," Griffith said. "Give us a chance to make our case."

Griffith stressed the economic potential of a casino, arguing it would provide jobs, generate tax revenues and enhance the mall's national visibility. That argument persuaded audience member Carolyn Buckmaster.

"We would have, I think, a lot of travelers coming through, a lot of visitors to our state, just like when the mall opened up. I was opposed to the mall. And yet I saw what great vision that there was in that," Buckmaster said.

David Strom represented the Taxpayers League of Minnesota on the forum panel. The league receives funding from Indian tribes with existing metro-area casinos -- all of which oppose expanded competition in the market.

Strom focused on the social ills associated with compulsive gambling. And even as the architect of Pawlenty's no-new-tax pledge, Strom says he'd rather see a tax increase than a state-sponsored casino.

"It's essentially saying what we're going to do is we're going to run at least $200 or $300 or $400 million of the state's services on the backs of addicted gamblers. What it is is it's predatory upon certain people who have weaknesses," said Strom.

Bloomington resident Juli Wunder Simmons says she opposes a casino precisely because of the negative elements gambling might attract, and the distortions it could cause to her city's way of life. But she says she's not sure her perspective would prevail in a citywide referendum.

"We do need to come to these events and other events to make sure they know there are people who are against this. And we do need to let our legislators know that we are not for this. So, if was confident I wouldn't care, I wouldn't be here," said Simmons.

Ghermezian said the Phase II expansion of the Mall of America would profoundly alter the tourism landscape in Minnesota. He said it would change the state from a two-to-three-day-stop into a place where an entire family could spend a weeklong vacation.

The expansion would include a 1,500-room hotel, a series of restaurants that would showcase world cuisine, an Italian canal and gondolas, a cinema multiplex and a light-rail station at the center of the new mall.

Mall officials also dangled the prospect of 10,000 new jobs and a whopping new source of revenue for the city's liquor, lodging and amusement tax.

Ghermezian said many of the new attractions would not pay for themselves and could only be funded by a casino. Without one, he said, the project would have to be drastically scaled back.

So far, no complete casino plan has emerged that spells out what role local citizens and elected officials might play in a siting decision. But the governor's plan is expected to be finished in the next month.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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