White Earth tribe states its casino case

Minneapolis stadium rendering (Ellerbe Beckett)

The White Earth tribe presented its idea for a downtown Minneapolis casino that would split profits between the tribe and offer a funding source for a new Vikings stadium.

Leaders of Northwestern Minnesota's White Earth Tribe tried Thursday to breathe new life into a previously unsuccessful request for state support for a new casino in the Twin Cities area by suggesting it as a way to raise money for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium.

White Earth Chairwoman Erma Vizenor, at a Capitol news conference, said the 20,000-member American Indian tribe – the state's largest – has desperate needs in health care, education and housing on its rural reservation about 250 miles northwest of Minneapolis. The tribe wants state lawmakers to vote to let them open a casino in the much more heavily populated Twin Cities, which Vizenor said would raise enough money to both alleviate tribal poverty and cover a taxpayer share of a stadium project that's likely to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Vizenor said an estimate prepared for the tribe a few years ago said such a casino would clear $300 million in profit a year, which Vizenor said could be split 50-50 between the tribe and the state.

Supporters of the proposal face an uphill battle. A similar tribal casino bid in 2005, backed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, died in a Senate committee after meeting heavy opposition, not just from opponents of expanded gambling but also other Minnesota tribes that already own casinos near the Twin Cities. Vizenor acknowledged White Earth has not been able to persuade other tribes to support the proposal since.

The Vikings have sought a replacement to the Metrodome for nearly a decade, contending it no longer generates sufficient revenue for the team to keep up with other NFL clubs, most of which are playing in new or renovated facilities. The Vikings' request has taken on new urgency in recent months because their lease at the Metrodome has expired. Although they are certain to play there at least one more season, fans – and state officials – fear a possible move to another city if they don't get a new stadium.

Recent stadium negotiations have focused on a new facility in downtown Minneapolis, on or next to the Metrodome site. Stadium supporters said Thursday that a new proposal for that site would be released soon, maybe even yet this week.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said while there has been behind-the-scenes progress, advocates need to realize that any proposal that emerges is far from a done deal.

"The little detail that remains is we have to get a Legislature and a city council to back it. That's not a small issue," Rybak said.

Rybak was at the Capitol trying to defend against a plan to turn off a special sales tax that finances the city's convention center. Some lawmakers are eyeing that revenue stream as a stadium funding source, but Rybak said the move would hamper the city's ability to attract major conventions. He said the state would lose out too, because reduced convention business means reduced tax dollars all around.

"In these next couple of weeks, it's going to be important to remember that there are going to be all sorts of trial balloons going up and down and they may or may not make sense," Rybak said, when asked whether he has been in talks with developers about other new businesses that could be attracted to the stadium neighborhood.

Numerous proposals for expanded gambling have been offered as ways for the state to raise a public portion of stadium costs, which could be as much as half the cost of a stadium project estimated at around $1 billion. The Vikings would also pay a major share.

Most recently, the team's chief legislative allies have indicated the state's portion would come from new tax revenue raised by authorizing electronic games of chance in bars and restaurants. Under that scenario, the local government where the stadium ends up city of Minneapolis – or another local government, if the stadium ends up elsewhere – would also pay a share from local tax proceeds.

But Vizenor said the casino would raise enough money to cover the entire public share, both state and local.

The White Earth tribe is not the first group to suggest opening a new Twin Cities casino to raise stadium money. The group that owns Block E, a struggling downtown Minneapolis retail and hotel establishment, wants state authorization to open a casino there.

Vizenor said she and tribal officials met recently with Gov. Mark Dayton, and that he supported their proposal. But Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci called that an overstatement. While Dayton is open to all groups trying to find solutions to the Vikings stadium drama, she said, he thinks authorizing a new casino as a way to fund it is problematic because it would likely get tied up in litigation for years.

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