Recently, the mayor of Prior Lake got the sort of text message that can easily mean trouble.

The new chairman of the Shakopee tribe, he was told, needed to talk. Mike Myser tried his own top staff person at City Hall, hoping for a quick briefing first. Failing that, he took a deep breath and just called.

The news floored him -- but in a good way. The casino-enriched Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community was offering several of its neighbors major donations, to use as they wished.

It was the latest of many signs, big and small, that a once-icy relationship between Scott County communities and their powerful neighbor is in the midst of a major thaw.

The grant of casino rights to American Indian tribes made millionaires of tribal members who'd once subsisted in mobile homes, creating jealousy and then anger and suspicion as they bought up land, taking it off tax rolls. Tribal moves often seemed furtive, and a loss of control over land use conjured wild guesses as to what they were plotting next.

People close to the recently deceased tribal leader, Stanley Crooks, are at pains to stress that today's more convivial spirit, accompanied by some very large checks, represents movement down a track he himself was installing before he died.

The tribe did not respond to requests for comment, but many agree that a generational change in leadership -- younger folks on both sides who are quicker to set aside the wounds of the past -- is taking place.

The change is not only within the tribe. Scott County is becoming a younger and much more diverse place. And as growth in such suburban areas slows, there's a bit less swagger in Scott County's step and more gratitude for the robust assets it does enjoy.

In the absence of public opinion polling, the best sign may be the public statements about the tribe by candidates for public office.

"I'm a big fan of the tribe," said Brent Lawrence, who is running to unseat the chairman of the County Board. "I think they do a magnificent job out there. I get the impression that people haven't tried to understand them, or ask them to participate more."

Skeptics, even cynics, remain.

The grant to Scott County, for instance, came shortly before its board met to decide whether to press ahead with litigation challenging the tribe's latest request to put more land in trust and pull it off the tax rolls. Is a $150,000 gift to the county and each of its cities a reminder of the benefits of a friendly relationship? The board on Tuesday agreed to halt its appeal.

The thaw overall doesn't mean all disputes have ceased.

A new compost facility that opened last year is wafting noxious odors toward neighbors, some of them say. The city of Shakopee is telling them that because the land is in federal trust and no longer subject to city regulations, there isn't a whole lot they can do, at least by any sort of direct order.

But there is agreement to work cooperatively on a solution -- and the tribe invited residents in for tours on Oct. 13, to see how the facility works from the inside.

Then, on Monday, the tribe announced that it has made another $250,000 donation to Shakopee's hospital, for a sophisticated surgical table, on top of $1.7 million in previous grants.

Major changes

Headline-grabbing news from the tribe in recent months included the decision to start selling alcohol at Mystic Lake Casino, and a deal with nearby Canterbury Park to enrich its purses in exchange for the track giving up on a racino that could draw business away from Mystic Lake.

On a more local scale, the tribe entered into a formal deal with its neighbors to meet regularly, and it has pledged to keep them informed of plans that might affect them.

Civic leaders find it extraordinary to see the new tribal chairman, Charlie Vig, turning up at local functions that bring together mayors, superintendents and other local luminaries.

"I never even met Stanley Crooks," Vig's predecessor, said Tom Wolf, chairman of the Scott County Board. "I may have been in a room with him once, but that's it. Charlie and I have actually talked together."

All the positive moves can't help but affect the view of Wolf and others when a sensitive move is made, such as the alcohol decision -- one that could send more inebriated drivers out onto county roads. Said Wolf:

"I happen to know that some of the greatest sales of little mini bottles of liquor are right around the casino. People come in there and dump those things into their pop. Trust me, alcohol at the casino is nothing new. It's just that the tribe now makes the money."

He added: "You know, when the Canterbury deal was announced, everyone wondered where the money was coming from. When the liquor deal was announced later on, it was like, 'Oh.'"

Jack Haugen, a former mayor of Prior Lake, years ago engineered a controversial turnabout in his own city's relationship with the tribe. He grew close to Crooks over the years and talked to him often, right into his hospitalization.

Haugen said the sudden series of changes can't entirely be seen as a change in leadership -- a change that includes not only Crooks' death but the removal from office of another Crooks family member, meaning the new three-person leadership group has substantially changed.

"Stan and I had talked in recent years about the alcohol thing and when the timing of a change might be," he said. "It was decided in a community-wide vote in April when Stan was still chairman. He did say for years he'd never let it happen, but he stepped aside and let it happen."

Other significant moves over the past years were the natural outflow from a gradually warming relationship, he said. For instance, when he was the first key neighbor to truly reach out to the tribe, it would take sometimes five or six requests to see Crooks before he'd be admitted. By the time Shakopee's youthful pro-tribe mayor Brad Tabke came along late last year, the admittance happened at once.

Still, he said, there's a notable shift taking place from a man who was a major national figure and was insulated in some ways from local neighbors, and a successor who is reaching out.

David Peterson • 952-746-3285