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No city yet willing to bet on casino
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Columbus township resident Don Steinke leads a citizens group that's trying to block a harness horse track development, which opponents fear is the first step toward a casino. (MPR Photo/ Mark Zdechlik)
Gov. Pawlenty says the metro area casino he's proposing in partnership with three Indian tribes could bolster the economy of community where it's located. Still, despite the promise of millions of dollars in incentives and thousands of jobs, no town or city has stepped forward in hopes of becoming the site for the casino.

St. Paul, Minn. — The scope of Gov. Pawlenty's casino proposal is enormous. It's a $550 million development that would create at least 3,000 jobs. There is also the promise of what the Pawlenty administration calls a significant host fee to the community where the casino is built, probably about $10 million a year.

Usually when governments even utter hints of large-scale investment and job creation, cities vigorously compete for the development.

But so far that's not been the case with the state-tribal casino.

Among a handful of locations mentioned as a possible site is the city of Burnsville. Burnsville City Manager Craig Ebeling says unlike other proposed developments, the casino comes with a lot of unknowns.

"Typically when we're working, trying to attract businesses we know a lot about those companies," Ebeling explains. "We're able to visit their existing sites and have them tell us about what their business is and get a good handle on what kind of facility they might be contemplating building in our community, and we have a lot of information on them. This is a little bit different situation. We're not sure what the implications would be."

University of Minnesota Extension Service economic development expert Michael Darger says he's not surprised by the reaction from Burnsville and other economic development officials.

"In my own community in northeast Minneapolis, just whether Home Depot could stay open extra hours is a controversial issue."
- Michael Darger, U of M Extension Service

"Casino economic development is something new for Minnesota communities other than, of course, the American Indian bands and tribes. So if there's a little caution on the part of economic developers it's not surprising to me, because this is not something that they're experienced with," Darger says. "It's not something that their analytical tools are designed to help them assess."

Gov. Pawlenty's Chief of Staff Dan McElroy says what cities should be thinking about is how a casino could spark further development.

"Look at Cabela's in Owatonna on Interstate 35," McElroy says. "Look what's developed around it. Two or three hotels, four restaurants, a strip center, another museum. It has spurred development, tourist impact, community interest around Owatonna. I think it's at least possible that a casino facility would do the same thing in Minnesota."

But a casino is different from a Cabela's. Consider, says Darger from the U of M, the fact that casinos don't shut down.

"I know in my own community in northeast Minneapolis, just whether Home Depot could stay open extra hours is a controversial issue. And you look at a casino doing a 24/7 thing, there's certainly an impact on the neighbors and the district. Those are fundamental questions to a community," Darger says. "What does it want to be and how does it want to manage activities like that? And that takes time."

Although the casino debate has thus far failed to trigger a civic bidding war for the development, it has fueled at least one pocket of citizen opposition.

North of the Twin Cites near Forest Lake in Columbus Township, a group of residents calling themselves "Columbus Concerned Citizens" is convinced a harness horse racetrack and card room that's already won approval for development is little more than a first step toward casino gambling.

The leader of the citizens group, Don Steinke, says Columbus residents should demand a better project for the site.

"We want it to develop with positive development that will bring good paying jobs to this area," Steinke says. "We're looking at this as not really the highest and best use for this property."

While no community has yet publicly stepped forward in pursuit of the proposed casino, the Pawlenty administration says it's been getting a lot of inquires. Chief of staff McElroy says it's premature to speculate on a site, even though Pawlenty's plan calls for opening a temporary casino at the site of the permanent structure within six months of legislative approval.