DENT, MINN. — In this remote stretch of Otter Tail County, where cows outnumber people and mom-and-pop resorts dot the lakeshores, ambitious plans for a sparkling new casino and hotel are stirring up some of the locals.
Within the next two years, this largely rural area where water covers three-fourths of the countryside will be home to a casino development that promises to bring thousands of visitors and hundreds of workers to a locale where a no-stoplight town such as Dent, population 193, counts as a major city.
The proposed 270-acre complex, about 190 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, would be built on the shore of Star Lake, home to sensitive wildlife breeding grounds, cabins that have been in families for generations — and a private hunting club that's been a getaway for some of Minnesota's oldest-money families.
"The location of this development in this sensitive ecological area is a threat not only to the wildlife but to the very activities that current residents enjoy," said Star Lake Concerned Citizens in a statement released Thursday.
Indeed, the Shooting Star development represents a dramatic departure for Otter Tail County, which boasts more than 100 mom-and-pop resorts, along with more lakes — 1,048 — than any other county in Minnesota.
"Nobody is terribly excited about the casino coming in," said Mike Donoho, whose family has owned land on Star Lake since 1898. "As I've told people, if I had my druthers, we would have the only cabin on the lake."
The casino resort complex will include 180 hotel rooms, 850 slot machines, a full-service spa, an RV park and a convention center capable of hosting gatherings of more than 400 people. It's being built by the White Earth Band of Chippewa Indians, which already operates casinos in Mahnomen and Bagley.
The land on Star Lake was granted to the tribe in trust by the federal government in the 1930s. It's not subject to local or state regulation, and federal law gives the tribe the right to build gaming operations on its trust lands.
Shovels have yet to hit dirt, as the project works its way through environmental assessments and permitting. But plans call for the casino to open in early 2018, said Bill Marsh, general manager of the band's existing casinos.
The new facility will be a boon to Otter Tail County, Marsh said — boosting tourism and providing jobs and benefits to other businesses in the area.
"Our goal is not only to build a gaming facility, but also to strengthen the economy there," he said. "We believe the size of the hotel we're building is going to create more demand in the area, and we would be bringing overflow to the other resorts."
That's the hope of the county government, too, which has little control over the project.
"There's no doubt, this is a much larger project than Otter Tail County has seen," said Nick Leonard, the county director of tourism and economic development. "I certainly understand and empathize with the concerns of people who are in that immediate area." But empathy and legality are two different things, he noted.
"There are some assumptions people have made that it's our job to stop this," Leonard said. "The reality is, for much of this project, it's a federal process."
Donoho, a board member of the Star Lake Property Owners Association, said the group hired a lawyer to determine whether it could do anything to stop the project.
"And his response was, basically, 'No,' " Donoho said.
A more aggressive stand has been taken by Star Lake Concerned Citizens, which includes "residents, property owners and others who share a concern for the future of Star Lake," according to the group's website.
In its statement Thursday, the group denounced what it called "likely one of the most egregious environmental proposals considered within the state."
"The Tribe plans what is a massive development in a sensitive wetland in a natural environmental area of Star Lake on trust land that was originally intended for the noninvasive activity of wild rice gathering," said the statement, signed by Ty Dayton, one of the group's leaders. The group noted that the area is used for nesting and migration by loons, trumpeter swans and bald eagles, among others.
Marsh, however, said the band is extremely committed to protecting the Star Lake environment.
"It's important to note that White Earth always has had a mission of protecting the environment as much as possible," he said. "We've spent over a year planning this project to make sure the impact to the environment has been mitigated."
Some residents have said a major resort casino will threaten the small resorts in the area. But it may actually help in the long run, said Ron Sugden, owner of the Bonnie Beach Resort on Clitherall Lake and former president of the Otter Tail Lakes Country Association, a local tourism group.
"I think there is room for it," Sugden said. "We have lost 50 percent of our resorts over the last 20, 30 years. I want to see some growth in the tourism industry.
"It will be a destination for people to go to," he said. "If there's no place for them to go, they might not even come to our area."
How people view the project may well depend on where they live, said Leonard, the county tourism director.
"The reality is, the further you get away from it, the more appealing it gets," he said. Although residents of Star Lake may not appreciate the development, "for folks 20 miles away, it's an amenity."