Opponents say Star Lake Casino is far from a done deal

VERGAS, Minn. - Opponents of the Star Lake Casino say the White Earth Nation project is still a long ways from being built.It faces environmental obstacles, internal opposition within the tribe, and a shortage of potential workers, says Ty Dayton...
Artist rendering of the new Star Lake Casino, which is set to be built near Dent.

VERGAS, Minn. - Opponents of the Star Lake Casino say the White Earth Nation project is still a long ways from being built.

It faces environmental obstacles, internal opposition within the tribe, and a shortage of potential workers, says Ty Dayton, president of the Star Lake Concerned Citizens Group.

"It's far from a done deal," Ty Dayton said. "There are a number of steps that still need to be resolved. The (Otter Tail) county still needs to discuss this in front of the public, and there is the potential (for county commissioners) to escalate this from an environmental assessment worksheet to an environmental impact statement.

"If they don't do that, they're nuts," he said.

That's because the trust land is mostly various types of wetland, he said.

"Have you been out and looked at it? It's bog-costs will be driven sky-high. They're talking pylons 80 feet deep to build on. It's essentially a part of Star Lake. They'll just float a platform on pylons."

White Earth wants to build a casino and resort on 15 acres of trust land and another 225 acres of "fee land" that has been purchased by the tribe to provide room for parking utility operations, transportation access, and other infrastructure included in the first phase of development.

The project will feature a 10,000-square-foot conference center, 6,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor pool and spa area, restaurant and gift shop, full service bar and grill, entertainment lounge, 180 hotel rooms, RV park, as many as 850 slot machines and other amenities.

It's not surprising that the land is marshy, Dayton said, since it was placed in trust by the federal government in 1938 to provide tribal access to the wild rice beds that grow right off the site of the proposed casino.

"That shallow bay is an extremely important habitat for panfish that feed the great fishery of Star Lake. It's also an important breeding ground for wildfowl-that's why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created preserves to the north and west of Star Lake and to the south and east of Dead Lake," Dayton said. "This is about as environmentally sensitive an area as you can get."

Efforts to give the bay environmental protection lake status were unsuccessful, he said.

"Cranes nest there, dozens of loons, bald eagles, red-necked grebes," he said. "There are also historical archeological sites there with artifacts, because for decades that area has been accessed by White Earth members."

White Earth Tribal Council is not unanimous in its support for the Star Lake Casino project, Dayton said, and there is a movement among tribal members to demand a public referendum on the plan.

And he said the site is in a remote part of the county without major highways, and the area already suffers from a worker shortage. Plans by the tribe to bus workers 90 minutes each way from Mahnomen are not feasible in the long run.

Shooting Star General Manager Bill Marsh did not return several phone messages, but he told the Perham Focus newspaper last month that developers understand the environmental concerns, and are committed to creating little or no negative impact.

"White Earth has never wanted to harm the environment," he said. "We've been very meticulous in our planning ... We're trying to be as accommodating and transparent as possible. We're trying to be as good of neighbors as we possibly can be."

The development would stimulate the economy through the creation of jobs and increased foot traffic, improving overall tourism throughout the area, Marsh said.

If the casino is built, it will likely bring more development to the area, as many as 500 new housing units over the next 25 years - a 42 percent increase over the existing housing stock, according to a limited comprehensive plan put out by Otter Tail County and the White Earth Nation.

But Dayton said a lot of residents are unhappy with the county's approach to the casino proposal.

"Many of us are upset that the county seems to be promoting this," he said. "The study does a lousy job of answering the concerns of the public. The county is doing an unfair deal by painting the perception that this will be great for everybody ... they need to open their eyes, there's a lot of opposition out here-we got over 700 signatures on a petition to escalate the environmental assessment worksheet to an environmental impact statement last summer."

The tribe may have the right to build a casino on the 15 acres of trust land, but the county has a big say on what happens on the other 225 acres of fee land purchased by the tribe, Dayton said.

The only permit granted by the county came last year, when it allowed soil boring samples. Dayton said further permits cannot be considered until the environmental review process is complete.

The Perham Focus reported two major steps toward construction of the casino are on hold right now - a conditional use permit application that paves the way for a parking lot adjacent to the casino and a wetland replacement application to allow wetlands lost on Star Lake to be replaced by new wetlands created in Becker and Roseau counties.

Both applications require approval by the county board, which has tabled decisions until the environmental review process is complete.

Development representatives initially said the facility would be completed in 2017. The time has been extended twice, and the target date is fall 2018.