Off-reservation gaming comes to my backyard – and it’s not prettyBy Aaron StanleyApril 16, 2017 at 8:16 amThe issue of off-reservation tribal casinos is one of those dry and frustrating topics I’ve generally tried to avoid when reporting and writing commentaries on the casino industry. I’m someone who looks for big picture trend lines, so analyzing the unique details and intricacies of these particular situations always gives me headaches.But the issue has taken on a much more personal undertone lately. I have been reporting on a proposed casino near Star Lake, Minnesota – 30 miles from where I grew up and adjacent to the lake I vacationed on as a child.Like almost every other off-reservation casino example, the details surrounding this project are singular and highly nuanced. In fact, it’s not even technically an off-reservation casino – which makes it even more bizarre.Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding the development can hardly be construed as benefitting the involved tribe or the local community. Nor is the development likely to present a positive image for tribal gaming moving ahead. Rather, it follows the cringe-worthy pattern of tribes building off-reservation casinos by exploiting loopholes in obscure laws that were never intended to have anything to do with casinos or gambling.In the 1930s, the U.S. government took a 15-acre patch of cattail marsh on Star Lake into trust, to be used for wild rice harvesting by Minnesota’s Chippewa Indians. Fast forward 80 years, to today: the White Earth Nation of Chippewas is seeking to fill in the wetlands to build a casino resort and convention center. That’s an economic development purpose almost certainly not imagined by the Depression-era Bureau of Indian AffairsBecause the patch of wetlands is already held in trust by the government on behalf of the tribe, this isn’t the typical case of “reservation shopping” that commercial and other tribal casino operators have long loathed. Rather, since the tribe already controls the land, via the trust, it is legally entitled to improve it as it sees fit.But the prospect of draining a rural Minnesota swamp to build a casino hasn’t been welcomed with open arms by locals. A group of Star Lake area residents and vacationers have mobilized, arguing that the development is outlandishly out of character for an environmentally sensitive area, and that it will destroy a wetland that is vital to waterfowl nesting and fish spawning in the area.Much to their dismay, the locals have no say over what happens on sovereign trust land – even if it is next door. Their strategy has been to call for a new round of environmental reviews by the county – which ultimately controls the permitting for the surrounding adjacent land that will be used for the casino’s parking lots, an RV park, and wastewater treatment facilities that will service the casino.The White Earth Nation leaders see building a casino on the land as something of a last resort to securing their financial future as a tribe. They also insist that they are committed to protecting the environment and will participate in a wetlands mitigation banking program – which means that for every acre they fill in, they will create two acres of new wetland in another location.The Otter Tail county commissioners who hold the power to issue permits for the adjacent land are doing their due diligence, but are caught between a rock and a hard place, weighing environmental concerns against potential economic impacts. Because the area has seen mom-and-pop resorts close at an alarming rate in recent years, the prospects of a new development that could create 400 to 500 jobs is enticing.While the project has generated substantial controversy locally, it has largely flown under the media radar. This is probably a good thing for the White Earth Nation, because the optics of draining a wetland to build a casino are astonishingly bad.Aside from the environmental aspects, there are several other factors that – when looked at holistically – make this project appear sadly shortsighted.The first is that Minnesota’s tribal gaming market is already widely considered to be saturated, with more than 20 casinos in a state of 5.5 million people. While Star Lake is located in what could arguably be deemed one of the last viable spots in the state for a casino, the area is sparsely populated except during the summer months, when resort-goers flock in on weekends to enjoy the region’s abundance of lakes.There are also problems with the viability of the project’s business model. The proposed site is literally in the middle of nowhere – a 30 minute drive from the nearest interstate highway, down a poorly lit two lane road, and at least 90 minutes from the nearest major population center. The location raises the obvious questions of where the gamblers will come from and how they will get to the casino.Further, there are other, better-located convention resorts in the county with more local cachet that are having difficulty staying afloat as it is. Is there even room in the market for a newer and flashier property that offers gambling?There is also the question of where the employees will come from. The surrounding area has a shortage of blue-collar workers, with many local businesses currently running under capacity for that reason. The site is also a 90 minute drive south of the White Earth Reservation. That’s a long drive or bus trip for tribal members looking to make the commute each day.Finally, there is significant dissension within the White Earth Nation itself as to whether or not this project is a good use of limited financial resources. One faction claims that the project is being rammed through by the tribal leadership without fully disclosing the costs and projected benefits, while unemployment, poverty, and addiction on the reservation remain stubbornly high and in need of being addressed.While I’m hardly the Sierra Club type, I see this proposed casino as being rife with project-specific problems and as a potential black eye for the tribal and commercial casino industries. In an era when so many gaming companies and tribes are going to extraordinary lengths to present themselves as corporate citizens who are concerned about environmental and community stewardship, this case – in my opinion – is the polar opposite. It is something that should be opposed by anyone concerned about gaming’s public reputation.