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Vizenor has high hopes for metro casino

Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor gave the State of the Tribe speech Thursday morning.1 / 3
the conference room in the Shooting Star Casino Event Center was standing room only for Erma Vizenor's State of the Nation address Thursday morning.2 / 3
Vizenor shakes hands after giving the address, as Terrance "Terry" Tibbetts looks on.3 / 3

White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor continues to push strongly for a Twin Cities metro casino-hotel that would share revenue with the state.

The plan nearly passed when first proposed in 2005, and the state is in much worse financial shape now, Vizenor said in an interview Friday.

If approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature and signed into law by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, the project would bring an estimated $150 million a year to the people of White Earth. That's 15 times the revenue of the Shooting Star Casino.

It would provide as estimated 2,500 jobs in the casino-hotel-dining complex and another 2,000 construction jobs as the facility is built.

There are 10,000 to 13,000 White Earth members now living in the Twin Cities area who could benefit from jobs at a metro casino, Vizenor said.

White Earth is the largest (40 percent of tribal members in Minnesota are White Earth members) and poorest of the 11 Indian bands in Minnesota, Vizenor said.

White Earth is also the only band among the 11 in the state that is not a member of the Minnesota Tribal Gaming Association.

Vizenor has taken a lot of heat from the other bands over her fight for a White Earth metro casino.

The organization exists largely to block any expansion of tribal gaming, Vizenor said, and is dominated by the tiny Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Band, which is wealthy from its two metro-area casinos --Mystic Lake and Little Six.

"They're shackled by money, power and greed -- and you can quote me on that," she said. "But White Earth is doing the right thing for our people and the state of Minnesota -- the resistance and pressure and attacks will not thwart me."

The state stands to gain a 50 percent share of revenues from the casino complex (estimated at $150 million a year) in exchange for auditing rights and a freeze on non-White Earth casinos being allowed to open in the metro area.

The money would not be tied to a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings, but could be used to bolster the state's general fund.

"We are the best solution on the table today," Vizenor said of the state's budget problems.

She disagrees with those who say the casino project will be tied up in court for an extended period.

"Every gaming option or proposal is going to have to go to court," she said. If the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association doesn't sue, then conservative anti-gambling groups will, she said.

"Our proposal will not be tied up in court any longer than any other option (that involves gaming). We've done our legal research on this."

As for those who object to the expansion of gaming on moral grounds, Vizenor responds, "isn't there something morally wrong with poverty? With inadequate health care? For the need for education for decent jobs?"

Those who oppose the expansion of gaming on moral grounds should be lining up to meet tribal needs some other way -- and that has never happened, she said.

The Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen, for example, plays a huge role in the economy of the reservation, with a $55 million payroll last year.

The Shooting Star took in some $10 million in profits that went to services for the people of White Earth.

The casino celebrates its 20th anniversary in May.

"The efforts and dedication of our employees has made us the gaming destination of choice in northern Minnesota," Vizenor said in information distributed during her state of the nation speech Thursday.

"That success has fueled the economic engine for our tribe and is responsible for many of the enhancements to our infrastructure and services that are available today," she added.

Last year, the casino saw about $81 million in revenues and paid out about $70 million in expenses, including payroll.

In 2010, the casino had revenues of about $77 million and expenses of about $66 million.

In 2009, revenues were about $77 million and expenses were about $67 million.

The revenue increase last year was due only partly to gaming revenue, which increased by a little over 2 percent.

Revenue at the food and beverage outlets increased by 19 percent, and revenues at the hotel increased 11 percent.

The higher expenses last year were due in part to a beefed up Star Rewards loyalty program.

White Earth was also successful at attracting a number of federal grants last year:

• $3.5 million from the Department of Justice for the tribal DOVE (violence prevention) program, tribal courts, health and police departments.

• $600,000 from HUD for a diabetes center

• $600,000 from HUD for a training center.

• $52,000 from Otto Bremer for the DOVE program.

• $50,000 from the USDA for the DOVE program.

• $50,000 from the USDA for the sports complex.

• $50,000 from the USDA for the Naytahwaush Fire Department.

• $8,000 from the USDA for the White Earth Fire Department.

• $3,000 from the state Historical Society for tribal archeology.

But grants are becoming more difficult to obtain, and the tribe has had to shift its focus.

"Many of our tribal programs have been created and sustained using outside funding which will potentially or has since no longer been available," Vizenor said. "Our pledge is to do everything we can to continue these services seamlessly and continue to add programs to aid our tribal citizens."

But that will require "bold changes in the way we do businesses," she said.

She listed four areas:

Structure -- separation of members service departments from tribal businesses. "This will allow focus on growth and profitability for our businesses while maintaining the level of services that our members are accustomed to."

Diversification -- Finding economic opportunities beyond gaming. "Areas we are currently considering include vertical and horizontal construction (White Earth Builders) biomass, retail distribution, creating a free trade zone for international imports and exports, and other possibilities," she said.

Building strategic partnerships -- especially ones that can help with White Earth Builders and Native Automation Solutions. "We are currently working with 3M on different initiatives and are exploring other tribal and non-tribal partners," she said.

Buy tribal. "We must work together to be successful by first doing business with our own and other tribal businesses," she said. "Every dollar that leaves our nation is detrimental to our economic standing..."