McFeely: Proposed Star Lake casino dead after three years of fighting

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STAR LAKE, Minn. — The rallying cry of those opposed to a casino on Star Lake in Minnesota's Otter Tail County proved to be correct. It wasn't a done deal.

"It's not a done deal," was the tagline used by groups opposing a massive casino, resort, convention center and RV complex proposed three years ago by then-leaders of the White Earth Band of Chippewa. It was to be built on Indian trust land and other property acquired by the tribe on Star Lake, a large and popular body of water located in a remote area of Otter Tail County east of Maplewood State Park near Dent.

The line was used on signs dotting Highway 41 that skirts the south arm of the lake, where the casino was planned. It was used in emails sent by Ty Dayton, the leader of a concerned citizens group that worked diligently and intelligently to stop the project. It was used verbally by opponents at every opportunity.

"It's not a done deal."

The message was to tell casino opponents and the general public not to give in, not to give up, to stay engaged in the process. Dayton and others knew that getting from Point A, proposing a casino, to Point Z, actually constructing and opening it, was going to be a long and difficult path that included all kinds of governmental, regulatory and environmental hurdles that perhaps tribal backers hadn't even considered.

It was spot-on.

Last week the White Earth tribal council voted to overturn the project, pulling the plug on a proposal that had been on life support for months.

There will be no Star Lake casino. It is dead.

"This is the official word we've been waiting for," Dayton said in an email.

The White Earth band operates the popular Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen, Minn., a destination for Fargo-Moorhead and area gamblers for decades. The tribe also opened a small satellite casino in Bagley.

But the Star Lake project seemed ill-conceived from the start, and was certainly controversial. Residents and landowners around Star Lake were vehemently opposed and the proposal revealed a schism in the tribe: Were members for Star Lake or against it?

That bled into tribal politics, too. Indeed, the final nail for the Star Lake casino was the tribal election held in June, when two outspoken opponents of the project won seats on the tribal council. That included Leonard "Alan" Roy defeating casino champion Tara Mason for the key secretary-treasurer post. Included in Roy's campaign platform was a straight-up appeal to defund the project.

In a Facebook post after the council vote to kill the casino, Roy called tribal members who opposed the project "heroes."

"This outcome proved that a handful of tribal members could stop a $130 million gaming machine," Roy wrote. "Tribal members banded together to advance the common good. Recuperating the resources wasted on this project will be a project in itself."

That's the kicker. While non-tribal members like Dayton and others who own property around Star Lake opposed the casino because they saw it as a disaster that would bring environmental and quality-of-life ruination to the lake, the new tribal leadership viewed it as a financial boondoggle.

Some White Earth members spoke out during public meetings that the tribe was sinking too much money into Star Lake and that there was no guarantee its members would see financial benefit because, they said, trends showed Native American gaming on the decline. Gambling habits are changing, they said, and investing in a new casino could be financially ruinous. They pointed to a White Earth satellite casino in Bagley as an example of a new facility underperforming.

At a tribal meeting last year, Mason said White Earth had already spent about $7 million on the Star Lake project. That figure included land acquisition, buying wetlands credits and architectural, planning and environmental fees.

That $7 million and whatever other costs the tribe spent would be the "wasted resources" to which Roy referred.

"It's not a done deal."

The Star Lake casino is now a dead deal.