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The longstanding ban on alcohol at Minnesota's most popular casino could end soon.
Mystic Lake Casino is gearing up to begin selling alcohol -- even advertising to hire bartenders -- as it awaits approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It has long been one of the state's few dry tribal casinos, but after watching revenue suffer along with the economy and years of requests from thirsty guests, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community quietly agreed to a policy change.
"Adding alcohol service and sales to our Mystic Lake experience has been the most requested feature by our guests over the last 20 years," Mystic Lake announced in a statement Friday, noting that it has been looking into the issue of alcohol sales for several years.
The Mystic Lake permit is still under consideration at the federal level, and the casino will still have to apply to the state for the right to sell retail liquor. The tribe is one of the richest and most influential in the country.
"Upon receipt of the necessary approvals and licensing we will make a full announcement of our plans and timeline," the casino statement said. "We look forward to bringing this new offering to our guests."
Longtime Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Chairman Stanley Crooks, who died Aug. 25, had been adamantly opposed to selling or profiting from the sale of alcohol at Mystic Lake. Although his death seems to have opened the door for a change in policy, tribal and community sources say he was aware of the impending change and knew it had to be considered to boost revenue, which has suffered during the economic downturn.
Even so, the change in policy is a sign of the changing of the guard within the band, which Crooks led for 20 years. His tenure paralleled the rise of Mystic Lake as the dominant tribal casino in the region. Of all the casino-owning tribes in the state, only the Shakopee tribe and Red Lake Band of Chippewa have a total ban on alcohol.
"I was quite surprised because Stanley Crooks' vision was that he didn't want any alcohol whatsoever and believed very strongly in keeping alcohol out of his casino," said Steven Howard, the executive director of the Leech Lake Band of Chippewa, based in Cass Lake, Minn. Only one of that band's three casinos, Northern Lights, near Walker, Minn., sells alcohol.
"With Stanley's recent passing, the council has come up with a new agenda now and they believe in opening alcohol sales to the casino will increase their revenue," Howard said. "And I totally agree: It's definitely going to increase their revenue."
He said he's noticed on several visits to Mystic Lake that patrons would leave early to go have a drink nearby and return to the hotel. Howard believes the Shakopee tribe, although still doing well, was looking for new revenue streams. He pointed to a recent multimillion-dollar deal with nearby Canterbury Park horse racing track, which agreed to give up plans to add slot machines.
The tribe "paid millions to prevent them from opening slots," Howard said. "Once they got that out of the way, I'm sure that weighed heavily on their mind in making this decision" about selling alcohol.
Alcohol sales came up last year during the bitter legislative battles over racino, a regular proposal in recent sessions to expand gambling at the state's racetracks. Mystic Lake's management warned that competition from racetrack slot machines might force them to begin selling alcohol to stay competitive.
"At the time, I was a little annoyed by the perceived threat," said Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, who supported the push for racino.
Local civic and business leaders have been delighted by the truce between two of Shakopee's biggest tourist draws. If Mystic Lake can serve wine to visitors, its tourist draw could get stronger.
"This is a great thing. It's a win for the community," said Angie Whitcomb, president of the Shakopee Chamber of Commerce. "It opens up opportunities for hotel and conference business."
Prior Lake Mayor Mike Myser said Crooks' stance on an alcohol ban softened as the economy and his health soured. Crooks died after what tribal officials called a long battle with a lung condition.
"At the end of the day, this change did occur while he was still alive," the mayor said. "The economy clearly had a big impact on their business, like it had on so many businesses."
Myser said he doesn't see much negative effect on other Prior Lake businesses because the casino is a destination in itself. He is concerned about the public safety ramifications of introducing alcohol at a venue visited by 20,000 visitors at peak times such as concerts.
"Clearly, from a public safety perspective, we've got a very significant population with a lot of people coming through there," he said. "Just like any other establishment serving alcohol in the community, there will be an impact on public safety with DUIs and that kind of thing.
"The percentages are going to go up and we're going to have more issues, without a doubt, on that front," Myser said.
Since the tribal council passed the change this summer, the mayor said there have been meetings with Shakopee police, Prior Lake police and tribal leaders "in order to manage this so the folks are properly trained and properly staffed so they take on this responsibility as effectively and safely as possible."
The ads for full-time bartending jobs -- at $9.54 hour, plus tips -- include a disclaimer that the jobs are "contingent upon the Bureau of Indian Affairs approval to serve alcohol at Mystic Lake Casino."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767
Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049