It's pain for Vegas, but gain for Mystic Lake

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON
  • Star Tribune
  • June 13, 2009 - 10:17 PM

Just before they brought up a contentious topic this month -- announcing that they want to take more land off the tax rolls in Scott County -- senior managers of the Shakopee tribe reminded the Scott County Board of all they are contributing.

"The Shakopee Sioux Community is the largest employer in Scott County," said tribal administrator Bill Rudnicki. "That didn't mean much to people in the last several years, but after the economic downturn it has taken on new meaning."

The tribe does not wish to "go down the path of some of the largest companies, who have cut employees," he said. "We know this is a major issue ... and we're trying to take a lead role by not cutting employees. We're one of your economic engines, working to keep people employed."

Commissioner Joe Wagner was impressed. "You know, it seems like Vegas -- like anyone in the world of gaming -- is in a world of hurt right now," he said. "And you haven't laid anyone off?"

"We are a very conservative organization even though we have gaming," Rudnicki replied. "We do not take chances that some of the larger players in the industry take."

Indeed, it has emerged that not all tribal gaming is being hit by the same economic forces as Las Vegas is. In the region that includes Minnesota, new data show, the Indian gaming take is actually up.

And that could be important news for Scott County. The tribe is not only the county's biggest employer, but it also has commissioned a long list of construction projects over the past few years even as other types of construction activity have tanked.

The new figures, released this month by the National Indian Gaming Commission, show that the nine-state area stretching from Michigan to Wyoming saw an increase of nearly $2 billion in gambling revenue between 2007 and 2008.

In contrast, gambling revenues in Nevada are off by about 14 percent, or more than $1 billion, in this fiscal year compared with the same period last year, according to the Nevada gaming control board. The fiscal year began on July 1, 2008.

Indian-run casinos, in short, may be benefitting from Vegas' pain, as gamblers opt to play the slots closer to home rather than pay to fly west and stay in hotels.

What isn't known -- and what the Shakopee tribe doesn't discuss -- is how that's playing out in Scott County itself. But Mystic Lake is a major player in its region, and Vegas has always been an important destination for Twin Cities gamblers.

There are a few outward and visible signs of the tribe's financial fortunes.

It does release data on its charitable giving. It has to acknowledge its many land acquisitions, which are a matter of public record. And it has chosen to release some information on its many construction projects, large and small.

All of those forms of spending have greatly increased over the past five to 10 years. It's too soon for outsiders to tell whether the pace of increase in any or all of them will now slacken.

Even the tribe, with all its wealth, doesn't always get its way, tribal managers confessed during the session with the board. A wind turbine that was supposed to be up by last year has been delayed and is now set to be whirling by Thanksgiving.

"They're difficult to get ahold of," the tribe's land manager, Stan Ellison, said. "General Electric wants to sell you 20 of them, not one."

David Peterson • 952-882-9023

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