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McFeely: Tribal election another blow for Star Lake casino

Leonard "Alan" Roy, the newly elected secretary-treasurer of White Earth Nation's tribal council. Photo courtesy of Roy's Facebook account

WHITE EARTH, Minn.—Less than a month ago, Star Lake casino opponent Ty Dayton characterized the status of the controversial project thusly: "The casino proposal is not dead. It's just in a very deep state of hibernation."

After the White Earth Nation tribal election on June 12, it might be time to ask a question.

Like, what is the next step between hibernation and death?

Suspended animation cryosleep? Or, in an ode to "The Princess Bride," mostly dead? Or something else?

Whatever it is, that's where the casino project sits currently. Pushing it over the edge to do-not-bother-to-resuscitate death seems within reach.

That's because two candidates opposed to the Star Lake casino won seats on the tribal council, defeating a pair of incumbents who strongly backed the project. Foes like Dayton believe the shift in power might be enough to bury the casino idea once and for all.

Most notably, outspoken opponent Leonard "Alan" Roy won White Earth's secretary-treasurer post, defeating incumbent Tara Mason by a slim margin. Mason ally Steven "Punky" Clark lost his seat to Ray Auginaush Sr.

Kathy Goodwin, another Mason ally, retained her seat with a victory over Loan LaVoy.

But it appears those who've come out publicly opposed to the Star Lake project have a 4-1 majority on the council. And Roy, who has the bully pulpit of the secretary-treasurer's seat, included "Defund Star Lake Casino" as part of his campaign platform.

Reached via social media last week, Roy would only say, "The only comment I wish to make at this time is that I've openly opposed the project."

According to the Pelican Rapids Press, Roy has questioned the Star Lake project and the financial impact the large capital investment would have on the White Earth Nation. The newspaper reported Roy also questioned the future of Native American gambling, "which some believe is now saturated in Minnesota."

Defunding the casino project, as Roy campaigned, would kill it.

Dayton, spokesman for the anti-casino Star Lake Concerned Citizens Group, was measured in his comments following the election. It's not quite time yet to spike the football.

"SLCCG is happy with the results for Star Lake and the people of White Earth," Dayton wrote in an email to The Forum. "Further, we are confident the new White Earth leadership's decisions surrounding the proposed Star Lake expansion will support the SLCCG mission: protection of Star's resources now and for future generations."

That has been the goal of opponents all along — to protect a wonderful lake and the surrounding Otter Tail County countryside from the traffic, noise, pollution and social impacts of a casino complex built in a pristine and isolated rural area. Yes, there is no doubt an element of NIMBY at work here, particularly from cabin owners near the project's proposed site, but to travel the southwest shore of Star Lake and picture a busy casino in the area is to shudder.

Mason and her allies launched the idea in 2015 to much hoopla about economic development and jobs in Otter Tail County. Initially, county officials liked the idea because it viewed a casino as a so-called destination for tourists.

But as opponents and the media shed light on the proposal, it became apparent the idea was only half-baked and a long way from being a done deal.

The idea for a 270-acre casino, convention center, hotel, resort and RV park as an addition to White Earth's Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen and a smaller offshoot in Bagley was met with fierce opposition. Eventually, opponents convinced the Otter Tail County Board of Commissioners to require White Earth to conduct an in-depth and costly environmental impact statement.

Since the board presented the tribe in September with a $30,000 fee that would go toward determining the size and scope of that impact statement, little has been heard from casino supporters.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must issue the necessary federal permits, says the project appears to be on hold.

Not dead, but in a very deep state of hibernation.

If the newly elected members of the White Earth Nation council live up to their campaign promises, they'll be shoveling dirt on the casino proposal before too long. Then we can declare it dead.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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