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Group ups bid for Callaway school

The White Earth Land Recovery Project has "substantially" upped its bid for the former Callaway School building, according to founding director Winona LaDuke.

The nonprofit organization wants to use the building for a variety of purposes -- including cultural education (Ojibwe language immersion courses, for example) and as a base for its fast-growing native food and craft business. It also wants to set up a business incubator there for micro-businesses on the reservation.

But LaDuke says it has absolutely no plans for a charter school in the former elementary school, closed last year for budget reasons by the Detroit Lakes School District.

The School Board last month rejected the group's $175,000 offer for the building, largely because it was less than half of the district's official asking price of $395,000.

Board member Deanna Sinclair also questioned whether any stipulation in the contract that the property not be used for K-12 instructional purposes could be enforced, given the fact that White Earth is considered a sovereign nation under federal law.

LaDuke says that concern is unwarranted, since her organization is a private, non-profit and is not part of tribal government at White Earth.

"It's a local, home-grown proposal, and we're nothing to be afraid of," she said.

The former school could become a model for renewable energy, with, for example, solar panels and a biodiesel boiler, LaDuke said.

"The school is a great opportunity to educate people as to what a local, home-grown economy looks like."

It could serve as a community resource center for people interested in installing renewable energy equipment.

And it could provide offices for tribal groups and like-minded community groups.

"There's not a lot of office space on the reservation," she said.

There might even be an opportunity for a community radio station there, she said.

"A lot of tribes have radio stations," she said. With changes in technology, "what was inaccessible to communities like ours is now accessible."

LaDuke's group sells food items like wild rice, jams, organic coffee, crafts and other items, and she expects sales to double over the coming year, so a larger building is necessary.

LaDuke has a lot of ideas: The school building could house businesses that support area resorts and cabins by providing opening and closing services, or house a reservation taxi service.

It could also support Indian tourism.

"People are coming to White Earth who are interested in native culture -- there's more to White Earth than the casino," she said. Tour groups could be shown native ricing techniques, basket weaving and other crafts and native history.

LaDuke's group has also been active in wind energy, and she said it is collaborating with the tribe, which has landed a $1 million federal grant to build an industrial-sized wind turbine on the reservation.

"I'm immensely grateful to Collin Peterson for his help," she said.

It will be slightly larger than the wind turbines operated by the City of Moorhead, and will likely be located in Mahnomen or White Earth Village, she said. The group is working with the tribal planning office to find a site.

LaDuke and tribal officials will travel to Denver March 13 to discuss the grant with federal Department of Energy officials.

The turbine will demonstrate that wind power is environmentally-friendly, she said.

"People say it kills birds, or it sounds like a helicopter -- this will show people what it is really all about," LaDuke said.

Much more money would remain in the regional economy if locals erect and operate wind turbines, as opposed to merely leasing land to energy companies for use as wind farms, she said.

"We want the revenue to stay in White Earth and Becker County, we need it," she said.

The tribe is collaborating with the Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Detroit Lakes on renewable energy, she said.

And she hopes to tap into state funding approved in May for community-based economic development projects to keep the wind initiative funded.

If successful, energy could be an "export crop" for White Earth and Becker County, she said.

The DL School District has received the new offer and met Thursday with agents representing the Land Recovery Project, said Business Manager Dick Lundeen.

He decline to say how much the new offer was for, though he agreed it was a "substantial" increase, and said that the Land Recovery Project has agreed not to use the school for K-12 educational purposes.

Lundeen said tribal sovereignty is not an issue, since the Land Recovery Project is not part of tribal government.

Negotiations on the price are ongoing, and he expects the school board to consider the offer at its March 13 meeting.

LaDuke said her group offered "significantly more -- we had to dig into the piggy bank," but she doesn't believe the original offer was out of line. Former schools sold for $80,000 in Osage, $200,000 in Park Rapids and for just $1 in Crookston after no buyer could be found, she said.

It costs the district approximately $15,000-$22,000 in annual maintenance costs to hang on to the Callaway building.