Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


White Earth’s ‘win-win’ stadium/casino plan seems DOA

“A great idea,” said Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove. “And it’s got no chance of passing.”

White Earth Nation chairwoman Erm Vizenor wants to build a metro-area casino that would help finance a variety of state projects.

The White Earth tribe of Ojibwe unveiled a plan this morning that seems to contain a lot for everybody:

 • A new Vikings stadium, without a nickel of taxpayer money.

 • Revenue for the largest and poorest tribe in Minnesota.

 • Millions for the state’s two horse tracks, Running Aces and Canterbury Park.

Article continues after advertisement

 • Jobs for construction workers.

 • More jobs for people who would end up working at a new, metro-area casino.

 “A great idea,” said Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove. “And it’s got no chance of passing.”

White Earth tribal Chair Erma Vizenor fleshed out at a news conference a plan that she had originally proposed at a legislative hearing earlier this year.

The White Earth tribe, located in far northwestern Minnesota, would build a $700 million metro-area casino (site undetermined).

The tribe then would put in $400 million “up front,” for the state to pay off all public obligations for a Vikings’ stadium. Additionally, though, the tribe would run the casino through an Ohio gaming company, with the state and the tribe equally sharing all profits.

Vizenor said the tribe has reached agreements with two partners in support of the deal. Credit Suisse would be the lead investment bank in the project, and Rock Gaming LLC would be the developer.

According to stats supplied by the band and supporters of the plan, the amount of money would be staggering.

The project, dubbed MinnesotaWins, would generate between $726 million and $1 billion from the casino in its first five years of operation.

Article continues after advertisement

Not only would the Vikings and the state benefit, according to Vizenor, but also the struggling horse-racing industry would also get a taste of the action.

The project would provide up to $12 million to increase the size of purses at the state’s two horse tracks. Increased purses, supporters said, would help save the state’s “billion-dollar” horse industry because bigger purses would attract more — and better — horses to the tracks.

Vizenor was joined at the news event by two legislators, Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, and Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona. They have introduced — or are in the process of introducing —legislation.

But neither Eken nor Miller are big power players in their caucuses at this point.

Judging from the reaction of House Speaker Kurt Zellers, it appears to have a very muddy track in front of it.

“I’d have to see a lot more,” said Zellers, dismissively. “How do you get the $400 million? These gambling votes aren’t there.”

There are other problems as well, both legal and political.

Kriesel, who was a proponent of a casino project in downtown Minneapolis and who is a huge Vikings fan, predicted that “the other tribes’’ will go to great length to kill the deal.

Even if the measure would get legislative support and pass, the bands with casinos near the metro area would almost certainly challenge the notion of a competitor casino in court.

Article continues after advertisement

Vizenor acknowledged that there is no support from the tribes that are scoring huge profits with the Mystic Lake, Treasure Island and two Grand Casinos.

“It’s not our intent or desire to be in conflict with the other tribes,’’ she said. “However, we’re talking about a business arrangement.”

She said each of the tribal nations operates under “a concept called self-determination.”

Beyond that, MinnesotaWins is relying on a legal opinion of former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief  Justice Eric Magnuson, who says the legislation would survive a court challenge.

Obviously, all of this is a big hunk coming late in a session where no action has become the rule.

How could this happen?

Former Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner, who is working as an adviser to MinnesotaWins, said before the news conference that the big hurdle at this point is whether there “are enough votes” to support a stadium.

To date, like so many others, Horner said he’s seen little fire around the idea of getting a stadium built. If it is to happen, Horner, like many others, believes it might be necessary for Gov. Mark Dayton to call a special session, presumably after next November’s elections and before the start of the 2013 session.

Meantime, there seems to be hope among White Earth supporters that this is an idea that will fly high with the public, thus putting pressure on legislators to not only pass a Vikings’ stadium bill but also to use the White Earth plan to pay for it.

Article continues after advertisement

At the news conference, Miller talked about that public pressure.

The stadium is constantly the issue he hears most about when he returns to his district.

“You go to the grocery store, a political event, and people are asking, ‘What’s the deal with the Vikings’ stadium?’ ” Miller said.  “They say, ‘I don’t want to pay for it, but get something done.’ ”

This approach is the answer to both of those public demands, the first-term senator said.

Vizenor said that the project has received a quasi-blessing from the stadium working group, made up of members of the governor’s staff and key legislators. The Vikings’ only concern, she said, is getting a stadium built.

This proposal, she said, is the only one around that creates no need for taxpayer money.

“No new taxes,” she said. “In particular, the concern over blink-on taxes if pull-tabs don’t meet their projections.”

(The current stadium legislation being considered would use funds from charitable gaming to fund the public share of the stadium. If those revenues don’t meet projections, funds from Hennepin County and ticket taxes would be used as back-up measures. In this proposal, pull-tab revenues would become the backup.)

As for a site, Vizenor said that MinnesotaWins has had some discussions with Arden Hills, which once was going to be the stadium site. Additionally, she said there have been talks with Minneapolis and some communities in Anoka County.

Ultimately, Horner believes the ace in the hole on this proposal comes down to a basic issue of fairness. As it stands now, the smallest band (Shakopee’s Mdewakaton Sioux) prospers mightily from its metro-area location, while the largest tribe (White Earth has 40 percent of the American Indian population, around 20,000 members) suffers.

“We have solutions that can break the gridlock,” said Vizenor. “We are shovel-ready and set to go with our partnership with the state.”