Update 11:31 a.m. June 22, 2009: I shoulda updated over the weekend. By now you’ll have read my follow-up piece about what hurdles this casino effort would face.
What I didn’t mention in the story is a lot of the political speculation:
- Most Grand ForksÂ City Council members I talked to can’t fathom how any of this could happen at the state level because they can’t fathom why Gov.Â John HoevenÂ would ever agree to another off-reservation casino.
His stated reason in the past — and now — was he didn’t want to see a significant expansion of gambling in the state. Council member Eliot Glassheim, who didn’t get my message early enough to get into the story, said if the governor did it for Grand Forks, he would then feel pressured to do it for Fargo, Bismarck, Minot and so on. So “significant expansion” probablyÂ has a secondary meaning.
- Grand Forks has worked really well with the state. We’ve gotten money for dikes, roads, centers for excellence at UND, police and fire equipment, to name a few things. As Council President Hal Gershman and Doug Christensen said, why would the city want to put political pressure on the governor for this casino?
They’re interpreting a call from a casino developer to the mayor — there was no call to the governor — as a reversion to the old strategy, which was to win support in Grand Forks and use that to win support at the state level, which would then win support at the federal level. If voters in one community says the casino will be good for them, it’d be hard for an official higher up to deny it.
- There maybe two relatively controversial public votes coming up in the next election in June, according to Doug. That’s enough for voters to chew on, he said.
A third controversial public vote would only overwhelm voters and lead them to vote “no” on everything.
The first voteÂ would be a vote on amending the home rule charter so that the Alerus Center could use some of the 3/4-percent sales tax for operations. Council members have been mulling that a while and they know it’d be hard sell, even though it would actually reduce the center’s dependence on subsidies, in a fashion.Â The 3/4-percent sales tax is already dedicated to the center’s debt and building improvements, but can’t be used for operation, which must now come out of the city’s 1-percent sale stax.
The second vote would be a vote on the Park District’s new fitness center in the far south end. In the past, some park commissioners have wanted to avoid a public vote, but there’s a lot of pressure to let the public decide for itself if it wants to spend so much money.
- I mentioned briefly how a casino south of the city could divert attention from commercial and residentialÂ development on the 42nd Street corridor around the Alerus Center. The assumption is that the number of shoppers and diners is finite and the number of investors interested in commercial and residential developments is also finite.
Naturally, there’s some flexibility here because a new development would tend to draw a certain number of new people — let’s say Canadians that are now going to the Seven Clans Casino near Thief River Falls. But there aren’t enough such new people for two new developments that are far apart.
So, if a casino development were to draw all the new shoppers and diners and all the investment dollars, it’ll take much longer to develop the property around the Alerus Center. City leaders have a much greater incentive to focus development around the Alerus Center because the center represents an $80 million investment by the public. The $45 million Canad Inns complex is another public investment of a kind because the city essentially let the company use the land for free in hopes of getting lots of property taxes.
It may be that the city could annex the casino development — minus the casino, of course, as that would have to be Indian land — but that would represent a more speculative investment far from the city core compared to the 42nd Street corridor. In his state of the city address earlier this year, the mayor himself talked about his desire to turn that whole street into a “Destination Corridor.”
To the City Beat‘s surprise, the effort by theÂ Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa to build a casino in Grand Forks is still on. We got wind of it after tribal member Delvin Cree sent a letter to the Turtle Mountain Star and to us, mostly because he would rather have a casino on or near the reservation to create jobs.
Delvin said the Tribal Council talked about the matter recently at a public meeting, though members didn’t say much.Â I called Council memberÂ Ted Henry, who Delvin said thinks as he does, but Ted said he really couldn’t say a whole lot.
Mayor Mike Brown, though, said, yes, his office did get a call from Guy Useldinger, on whose land the casino would go, and Guy wanted to know if the mayor is still open to the project. The mayor said “sure,” so I guess that’s one reason the tribe’s talking about it again.
In case you’ve forgotten, the story is that the tribe wants an off-reservation casino, which would bolster its revenue a lot better than the casino it now has on the reservation in Belcourt. Look where Belcourt is and you’ll see why that casino’s not getting a lot of traffic.
But there are lots of hurdles, the biggest being governmental. An off-reservation casino has to have the support of:
- The local community, which likely means a majority of voters in Grand Forks have to give the OK;
- The state government, which means the governor or the Legislature would have to act;
- And the federal government, which means the Bureau of Indian Affairs would have to act.
In Grand Forks, there’s been a lot of skepticism, if not hostility, to a tribal casino. The mayor thinks thatÂ attitudeÂ may haveÂ changed recently. I’m not so sure because it’s only been two years since this was really a big public issue.
The economy is leaner, but I don’t think casino jobs get a lot of respectÂ from residents in theÂ context of economic development. For what it’s worth, here’s what I wrote about theÂ economic impact study thatÂ casino developers released in June 2006:
Specifically, the study said the community would gain 446 jobs, 1.1 million visitors a year and $18 million in revenues for government entities within the county. With 700 slot machines planned, the Grand Forks casino would be the second largest one in the state, just behind the Dakota Magic Casino in Hankinson.
Annual wages at the complex would total about $10.5 million, according to the study, an average of $27,500 per job.
Note that the assumption then was the casino would have slot machines. Developers have since suggested they might do video bingo instead, which leads us to the hurdles at theÂ state government level.
Here’s my story later in June 2006:
Bad news for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa’s proposed Grand Forks casino came out of Gov. John Hoeven’s office Tuesday in the form of a letter explicitly denying that the tribe had the right to open electronic bingo parlors.
Bingo is the tribe’s fallback position if it fails to get permission from the Legislature to build a new casino with 700 slot machines. The tribe is convinced that existing state law allows it to install electronic bingo machines because bingo is not restricted in the same way as slot machines.
Having heard the tribe’s explanation in May, Hoeven said he didn’t think so, according to his legal counsel Duane Houdek. Hoeven was traveling Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.
The governor’s position is that any expansion of gambling in North Dakota must go to the Legislature, Houdek said. “If you’re trying to simulate a casino, to make it look and feel like a casino, it is still an expansion of gambling in the state.”
In other words, bingo really isn’t bingo if it’s electronic bingo, which has computer graphics like slot machines.
I wonder how much has changed since then. We still have the same governor, whose term won’t be up until 2012. The Legislature might be different by 2010, but how different really in its sentiment toward gambling?
Back in 2006, the tribal chairman was Ken Davis. Now, it’s Richard Marcellais, who’s also a DemocraticÂ state senator. I called him, but he wasn’t home, so I don’t know where he stands.
(If he did support a casino, you might wonder if he’d do better with the issue if he were Republican. I think not because, as I understand it, half the Republican party in this state thinks the other half is too liberal.)
The last is the federal hurdle. In the past, the fedsÂ went along with whatever states said about casinos. That might have changed with stricter federal guidelines that came out last year. I wrote about those here.
So if the feds are now scrutinizing the effects of an off-reservation casino on tribal employment, that might suggest the direction for casino developers.
When I talked to Delvin, he said he would rather see a casino in Dunseith, where he lives, because that’s where the unemployed tribal members are, not Grand Forks.
Currently, he said, the tribe puts casino profits into tribal programs, and there’s a lot of dispute about how that’s working.
It’s possible the Tribal CouncilÂ wouldÂ promiseÂ to put Grand Forks casino profits into an economic development program to fulfill the federal requirement.