White Earth tribe jumping into stadium debate

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE , a nd ERIC ROPER
  • Updated: February 16, 2012 - 6:51 AM

White Earth officials offer to partner with state to build a non-reservation metro casino, split profits.

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An Indian casino in Minnesota.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Rolling the dice on a gaming venture that could unite state and tribal interests, White Earth Tribe officials hope to build a metro-area casino with the state that would help pay for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium.

At the same time the casino proposal is announced Thursday at the State Capitol, the House tax committee will hear a controversial tax proposal some believe is designed to coerce support for a downtown stadium from resistant members of the Minneapolis City Council.

The budding revenue prospects come as expectations are growing for release of a detailed plan to build a new stadium on the back side of the Metrodome for the Vikings to occupy by the end of the 2016 season.

According to the White Earth Tribe's "Minnesota Wins" website, revenue from the proposed casino would be evenly split between the state and tribe. Backers say that would be enough to pay the public's share of a new stadium without new taxes. The tribe would use its share for housing, economic development, health care and education needs on its 1,300-square-mile reservation in northwestern Minnesota.

The casino would be the first on non-reservation land and the first to share its revenue with the state.

Few additional details were available Wednesday. However, at a Senate hearing in December, White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor said a tribal casino next to a Vikings stadium in Arden Hills would raise $300 million annually.

John McCarthy, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, was critical of the proposal.

"We're opposed to expansion of gambling and we're opposed to off-reservation gambling, no matter who does it," he said.

The White Earth Band does not belong to the gaming association.

White Earth officials say they've already secured financing for development and construction, and that the casino would pay property and sales taxes. Officials estimate 2,500 jobs would be created to build the casino and up to 2,000 new, permanent jobs would be needed to operate it.

After the stadium is paid off, revenue would continue to go to the state. The state would regulate and audit the casino, which is not the case with tribal casinos generally.

Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, and Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, who introduced the bill Monday in the House, are expected to join Vizenor Thursday at the news conference. Also scheduled to attend is Mahnomen City Administrator Jerry Carrier and stadium booster Cory Merrifield of savethevikes.org.

The White Earth Reservation is the state's largest and most populous, with more than 20,000 band members. The tribe runs the Shooting Star casino in Mahnomen.

A choice for Minneapolis

Meanwhile, House Tax Committee Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston, wants to cancel a series of Minneapolis hospitality taxes that raise money for the city's convention center once the city pays off the facility's bonds in 2020. He planned to bring the bill before his committee on Thursday.

Mayor R.T. Rybak wants to redirect the hospitality taxes to pay for a Vikings stadium and long-term Target Center costs but has been unable to win broad City Council support. He has warned before that legislators might try to remove the taxes altogether.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said the message from the GOP wasn't subtle.

"I'm sure what they're trying to do is tell Minneapolis that unless they contribute that money to a stadium, they can't have it at all," he said. "It's just a threat."

The Davids bill drew scorn from all corners of City Hall, where elected officials said eliminating the taxes would decimate the state's convention industry, which attracts visitors and generates tax revenue.

Without the taxes -- a 0.5 percent citywide sales tax, a 3 percent restaurant and liquor tax and a 2.62 percent lodging tax -- officials said the convention center's business would become meager. The taxes supply about 80 percent of its annual revenue.

Rybak said he will testify "passionately" against the bill.

"In the heat of all of the Vikings drama, people may want to take all sorts of actions. But the idea of unfunding the convention center is basically the state punching itself in the face," the mayor said.

Davids, who did not return a call Wednesday, declined to say earlier this week whether his bill was aimed at pressuring the City Council. "The bill itself is simply taking [away] a very regressive tax that is putting more money into that account that was never contemplated was needed," he said.

Staff Writer Rochelle Olson contributed to this report. eric.roper@startribune.com • 612-673-1732 kduchschere@startribune.com • 612-673-4455

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