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White Earth has spent millions on Star Lake project

MAHNOMEN, Minn. — White Earth Nation has spent about $7 million so far on the proposed Star Lake Casino project, Tribal Secretary-Treasurer Tara Mason said at a meeting with tribal members. Expenses for the Star Lake Casino include land acquisition, buying wetland credits and architectural, planning and environmental fees.

Some of the money spent so far includes intermingled architectural fees for the existing White Earth casino between Ebro and Bagley. The same design, on a larger scale, will be used at Star Lake, if the project is approved.

That Star Lake Casino news came out of a meeting between the Tribal Council and tribal members Monday, June 26, in White Earth. A reporter attempted to cover a special meeting of the Tribal Council was turned away because he is not a tribal member.

Tribal member Leonard Roy covered the meeting via Facebook Live, although he had to quit broadcasting (and opted to leave the room) before the council would talk about finances.

Tribal members at the meeting appeared to be largely opposed to the proposed Star Lake Casino, and were angry about the lack of information from the tribe.

"The Star Lake group (opposed to the casino) has been good to us, but they have better information than tribal members," said one man. "We ask for information (from tribal government) and we're told 'that's confidential information'—that's B.S."

There was also concern expressed about the new, smaller casinos in Bagley and Star Lake "cannibalizing" revenue from the main Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen.

Part of the idea behind the Bagley casino was to create jobs for tribal members in the northern part of the reservation. "That (Bagley) casino has its limits, too," said Tribal Chairman Terry Tibbetts. "How much can a 179-machine facility pull in? We could have stuck a lot more money into the Shooting Star and upgraded it."

Mason said the feasibility study, which has largely guided the Tribal Council on its gaming decisions, projected a 3.4 percent cannibalization rate from satellite casinos.

"We're still up 6.4 percent in gaming revenue this year," she said. "That's taking into account the cannibalization rate as well."

Also, the Shooting Star has 1,700 new sign-ups (first-time customers), which shows the tribe's main casino is still drawing in people, she said.

Those first-timers spend anywhere from $5 to $1,000, so it's hard to judge the impact from the number of sign-ups alone, said Tibbetts.

The crowd did not seem impressed, saying a big percentage of those new sign-ups could just be one-time visitors.

"They're passing through, whoop-de-do," said one man.

Mason asked the boisterous crowd to allow council members to answer the questions, and said she was keeping a list of questions that she would get answered, such as how many of the 1,700 sign-ups were repeat customers.

And Mason said the Tribal Council has been steadily making improvements to the Shooting Star Casino and attached hotel and convention center.

The feasibility study next calls for upgrading the buffet restaurant, and the pool area after that, she said, then perhaps adding a bowling alley and small movie theater, moving Bingo onto the gaming floor, and building an amphitheater to improve visibility during concerts.

After all that is accomplished, the feasibility study calls for "looking at a different structure for the hotel," she said. The current layout requires a very long walk from the hotel to the casino floor and back again, which is not ideal for older visitors, she said.

Hotel towers with easy access to the gaming floor would make it easier for seniors to enjoy an extended stay and engage in gaming, she said.

Several people talked down the idea of a bowling alley and movie theater, with one suggesting a water park instead, like the one attached to a casino near Thief River Falls owned by the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe.

That in turn led to talk of ventilation problems and employee health concerns at that waterpark.

Challenged by a tribal member as to why she thought the Star Lake Casino was a good idea, Mason said the council is following its gaming blueprint.

"The (2015) feasibility study was the reason we thought this was a good idea," she said.

The Star Lake casino and resort would be built on 15 acres of trust land and another 225 acres of "fee land" that has been purchased by the tribe to provide room for parking utility operations, transportation access, and other infrastructure.

The project will feature a 10,000-square-foot conference center, 6,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor pool and spa area, restaurant and gift shop, full service bar and grill, entertainment lounge, 180 hotel rooms, RV park, as many as 850 slot machines and other amenities.

If the casino is built, it will likely bring more development to the area, as many as 500 new housing units over the next 25 years — a 42 percent increase over the existing housing stock, according to a limited comprehensive plan put out by Otter Tail County and the White Earth Nation.

Casino may go to vote of tribal members

The White Earth Tribal Council has taken the first step towards allowing a vote of the people to decide the fate of the proposed Star Lake Casino near Dent—or any other question they want to put to a vote.

The council on Monday voted 3-0 to approve the White Earth Referendum Ordinance, which sets forth the procedures for putting an issue to a referendum vote. The new ordinance will be posted for 15 days and now begins a 30-day public review period.

Under the ordinance, referendum elections can be initiated by the Tribal Council, or tribal members may ask that a new ordinance be submitted to a referendum vote.

Tribal members can also initiate their own referendum questions. A petition is required, signed by at least 20 percent of resident voters on the reservation.

Supporters have 90 days to gather and submit the petition, and tribal government then has 30 days to verify names and determine the petition is legitimate.

The Tribal Council then must set the date for a referendum election no sooner than 20 days and no later than 90 days. A simple majority vote is enough for a referendum question to pass.

A five-member election board, with one member appointed by each of the five tribal council members, will oversee the referendum vote.

Polling places will be the same as in regular tribal elections, and absentee voting will be allowed. Tribal members will have seven days to contest the results of a referendum election. The election board will judge the case and issue its findings within seven days. There is no appeal.

The new ordinance, which was signed by Tribal Chairman Terry Tibbetts and Tribal Secretary-Treasurer Tara Mason, is the first tribal ordinance that could itself be subject to a referendum vote of the people, if any opposition arises.