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Talks about a casino in Grand Forks revived

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Though it's a long shot, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa officials apparently haven't given up on their dream of building a casino in Grand Forks.

The Tribal Council put the project back on the table recently, discussing it at a public meeting. One council member the Herald contacted, Ted Henry, essentially confirmed this, but said he wasn't at liberty to show the tribe's hands just yet.

Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown, though, said that his office did talk with landowner and developer Guy Useldinger about a month ago. Useldinger wanted to see if the mayor was willing to discuss the project, and Brown said he was open to the idea.

It's been more than two years since the tribal casino effectively folded under pressure from area residents, reluctance at the state level and federal regulations that call for greater scrutiny of off-reservation casinos.

Federal regulators require community and state support if a tribe is to build a casino outside of its reservation, which is why the Turtle Mountain tribe has to talk to the city. Given the controversy, though, the City Council had shown that it preferred to put the matter to a public vote.

Asked if he thought the public would be any more receptive of a tribal casino than before, Brown said, "Time will tell. We're more open, more diverse. A chance to look at it again is good."

Casino opponents had claimed a few years ago that a tribal casino would cause gambling addiction to explode. Those who treat addicts, though, had said at the time they didn't really expect much of an increase because there already is gambling in Grand Forks and tribal casinos are easy to get to.

Plans for the Turtle Mountain casino from a few years back show that it would form the core of a commercial and residential development south of Grand Forks. An economic impact study developers released in 2006 said the casino would create 446 jobs with annual wages totaling $10.5 million. Local governments in the county, the study said, would hit an $18 million jackpot from new tax revenues.

State leaders, at the time, were not especially enthused. Even when developers said they would have electronic bingo instead of slot machines, Gov. John Hoeven had said that was still a major expansion of gambling that he opposed.

Of the several tribes in North Dakota, the Turtle Mountain tribe has the largest membership, about 30,000, but one of the smallest, most remote reservations. It's near the Canadian border and at least two hours away from the nearest major city, Minot.

A Grand Forks casino would get much more traffic than the casino the tribe already has in Belcourt, the reservation seat.

Some tribal members, though, said they'd like to see the jobs created on or near the reservation, which suffers from high unemployment.

Delvin Cree, a member of the tribal treaty council and resident of Dunseith, said he had heard the council discuss the project and wants it in his town instead.

Dunseith is not far from Belcourt, but is on the route to the International Peace Garden and Lake Metigoshe State Park.

Profit from a Grand Forks casino would be bigger, he said, but he'd prefer more jobs. The tribe pumps profits from the existing casino into social programs, he said, but there's a lot of dissatisfaction about how those programs are funded.

Unlike some tribes, which divide profits among members, the Turtle Mountain tribe has too many members for those profits to be very meaningful to individuals, he said.

The Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald and DL Newspapers are both owned by Forum Communications Co.