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Early reviews are mixed for state-tribal casino plan
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Officials at White Earth project a Twin Cities casino would infuse between $30 and $50 million annually into the White Earth economy. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Three northern Minnesota Indian tribes are closing in on an agreement with the state to build a Twin Cities area casino. The proposed half-billion dollar entertainment and hotel complex would be operated by the tribes through the Minnesota State Lottery. Gov. Tim Pawlenty says the casino would provide an ongoing revenue stream to the state of about $100 million annually. Tribal leaders say it would generate millions for them to combat poverty, unemployment and homelessness. Not all tribal members are convinced the plan is a good idea.

St. Paul, Minn. — Attorneys from both sides have been working on the Twin Cities casino plan since the tribes first met with the governor in January. Ron Valiant, executive director of the White Earth Band, says the deal is nearly complete.

"We're hoping to announce something soon, but right now we're just working out the final details. And I think that something is going to be coming out in the next week or two," he says.

The governor's budget proposal counted on a $200 million up-front licensing fee that the tribes would have to pay to get started. It's not clear yet whether that figure will be part of a final agreement. But Valiant says both sides have been involved in some give and take during negotiations.

"Some of the finances, some of the splits, some of the technical stuff and stuff, who'd be controlling what, the rules and regulations. It's still a little preliminary, but we're getting close now," he said.

Officials at White Earth project a Twin Cities casino would infuse between $30 and $50 million annually into the White Earth economy. The money would be targeted for economic development, jobs, housing, land acquisition and education.

Still, not all White Earth band members are comfortable with the idea.

"The people of White Earth here that I represent have a lot of questions that haven't been answered," says Tony Wadena, a member of the White Earth Tribal Council. Wadena has been the lone voice of dissent on the council.

Wadena says many of his constituents don't trust Gov. Pawlenty or the state of Minnesota. They question how a deal with the state would affect the band's sovereignty.

"There's questions about going in with the state like this and what it's going to do for Indians across the country, not just White Earth or Red Lake or Leech, but all Indian people," according to Wadena.

More than 80 percent of Indians in Minnesota live on one of the three northern reservations. Because of their isolated locations, those tribes have had limited success with gaming. Meanwhile, tribes closer to the Twin Cities have reaped huge profits. Those tribes oppose a new Twin Cities casino. Tony Wadena says it's created an unhealthy split among Minnesota Indians.

"In a sense we are turning on each other as far as tribes, tribewise. We're fighting other tribes on this issue. And I just don't feel comfortable fighting other tribes in this situation," he says.

Gov. Pawlenty is facing pressure from the southern tribes and from other groups opposed to an expansion of gambling. On Minnesota Public Radio's Midday program this week, the governor responded to his critics.

"It is delusional, it is fictional to say that gaming isn't already expanding in Minnesota," Pawlenty said. "We have 18 tribal casinos in Minnesota. A big chunk of those have been added just in the last five or seven years. To say that gaming isn't growing is really oblivious to the reality that's swirling around, about us. So rather than sticking our head in the sand on that point, what I've said more broadly is: we should ask the question, is the money being distributed in a manner that's fair, fair to the state broadly, and fair to the northern tribes and other tribes who don't really benefit as much from casino gaming."

Neither side has nailed down a specific location for the proposed metro-area casino. Once a casino deal is finalized with the tribes, it would still need approval from the Legislature.