McFeely: All quiet on the Star Lake casino front
All is quiet on the shores of beautiful Star Lake in Otter Tail County. There is no noise from slot machines, no flashing lights from signs, no hum of generators from RVs.
The casino proposed to be built on the 4,700-acre lake east of Maplewood State Park, an idea generated by the White Earth Band of Chippewa, is apparently no closer to being built today than when it was first proposed nearly three years ago.
But opponents are not resting.
“The casino proposal is not dead. It’s just in a very deep state of hibernation,” said Ty Dayton, president of the anti-casino Star Lake Concerned Citizens.
No news is good news for those who don’t want to see a pristine area of Minnesota lakes country, an environmentally sensitive area, despoiled by a 270-acre casino, convention center, hotel, resort and RV park. That’s what the White Earth Band, which operates the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen and a smaller offshoot in Bagley, wanted to build on the southwest shore of Star Lake.
Touted as a much-needed economic development and jobs boost by the tribe and supportive county officials when the project came to light in September 2015, it met fierce opposition from cabin and property owners in the area. Opponents said the project would spoil the quiet solitude of the remote area, adversely affect fish and wildlife, cause water and noise pollution, strain Otter Tail County’s law-enforcement services and dangerously increase traffic on county roads.
When the project was last in the news, opponents won a victory when the Otter Tail County Board of Commissioners voted to require a full environmental impact statement to measure the project’s significance on Star Lake, nearby wetlands and the surrounding land. That was in mid-August 2017.
Since then -- crickets. Nothing.
“There are no updates,” said Rob Maroney of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Brainerd, Minn.
The Corps has to permit the project, but as of Friday, June 1, had not received the required EIS findings from tribe to do so. Maroney, in fact, said the Corps’ casino file is closed because the tribe withdrew its permit application. It can be reopened if the White Earth Band decides to file the necessary paperwork.
The future of the casino battle might hinge on the June 12 tribal council election on the White Earth Reservation. The three majority members who pushed the Star Lake project forward are all up for reelection, including secretary-treasurer Tara Mason. Incumbents and Mason allies Steven “Punky” Clark and Kathy Lynn Goodwin will also face challengers. If Star Lake casino proponents lose their majority, the project might die. The casino appears to be part of the campaign rhetoric at White Earth.
There have been other changes among major players in the Star Lake project, too. Shooting Star chief executive officer and general manager Bill Marsh, who announced the proposal in 2015, has resigned. Skilled tribal lawyer Joseph Plumer, who represented the White Earth Band on the project, has resigned. And Liz Foster Anderson, CEO of the tribe’s development arm who was intimately familiar with the project, also no longer works for the band. That is a mountain of expertise and experience gone.
The last activity relating to the casino, as far as Dayton knows, was in September when Otter Tail County presented the White Earth Band with a $30,000 fee that would go toward determining the size and scope of the EIS. Dayton said that would only set the stage for an even more costly EIS, which would likely take more than a year to complete.
The casino is still a long way from being built, even though the tribe initially promised it would be completed in 2017. The opening date was moved back to September 2018, and officially remains there. That is an impossible goal.
In the meantime, summer goes on in Otter Tail County. Boating, fishing, swimming and wildlife watching continue on Star Lake without a casino on the southwest shore. All is quiet. Except for the loons yodeling to each other all over the lake, of course.
“It’s really, really quiet on the casino front,” Dayton said. “Isn’t it great?”