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Star Tribune 

White Earth tribe offers $400M for state share of Vikings stadium


A northern Minnesota Indian tribe is offering enough money to cover the state's entire $400 million contribution to a new Vikings stadium and $12 million per year for racetrack purses if it is allowed to build a gambling palace in the metro area.

The sweetened offer from the White Earth Nation is "the only solution that meets the test of fairness, common sense and no new taxes, guaranteed," said Erma Vizenor, the tribal chairwoman. "The 20,000 members of the great White Earth Nation are looking forward to a new way of life."

But historic gambling rivalries and concerns over legal and financial issues are making the tribe's "Minnesota Wins" proposal look like anything but a winner.

Shortly after Vizenor unveiled the plan, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, appeared cool to it. "We will stick with what works," he said, referring to the consensus forming around an expansion of the charitable gambling industry to include electronic pulltabs as a way to help pay for a stadium. Zellers is a strong proponent of the charitable gambling proposal.

Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, also appeared unenthusiastic. "It's probably going to have a difficult time," said Senjem, noting potential conflict with other tribes and their casinos on reservations. Senjem has strongly backed a languishing proposal that would put video slots at horse-racing tracks as a stadium revenue source.

More interested was Vikings Vice President Lester Bagley, who said the team is open to the proposal. "Having alternatives is good,'' Bagley said. "We're impressed with what we heard from White Earth."

The White Earth tribe, based on a sprawling reservation near Mahnomen in northwestern Minnesota, is proposing a casino at an undetermined metro-area location that would be built and managed in partnership with the state. A $400 million payment to the state would be an advance on a 50-50 split of net casino earnings between the tribe and the state, and would cover the state's contribution to the football stadium, the tribe said. It would be the first casino not on Indian tribal land.

The tribe also would provide up to $12 million per year to greatly boost purses at Canterbury Park and Running Aces racetracks. Now, purses are about $6.5 million per year at Canterbury and $1.8 million at Running Aces. The tribe estimates net revenues to the state at $220 million per year once the casino is fully up and running in five years.

White Earth is the state's largest tribe, with more than 20,000 members, and also among the poorest. It operates the Shooting Star Casino, Hotel and Event Center in Mahnomen. Like the nearby Red Lake Band of Chippewa, White Earth is rich in land but far from the population centers where gamblers live. The idea of allowing northern tribes to build a casino in the Twin Cities -- and to share the wealth with the state -- was proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2004 but opposed by other tribes and did not succeed.

Asked how the tribe, which is among the poorest in the state, would come up with $400 million, adviser Tom Horner said it would be built into the financing of the casino. A former gubernatorial candidate, Horner has in the past served as an adviser to the Minnesota Vikings on stadium issues. The tribe said it has reached an agreement with Credit Suisse as its lead investment bank and with Rock Gaming LLC as the developer. No site has been selected.

Gov. Mark Dayton backed a state-run casino as a candidate in 2010, but he did not embrace the White Earth proposal.

Katharine Tinucci, Dayton's spokeswoman, said the governor worries about this off-reservation project getting tied up in litigation. "The governor said he doesn't think a metro-area casino is a reliable source of funding for the stadium," Tinucci said. "We don't view this as a factor in the stadium debate."

Canterbury and Running Aces have long advocated racetrack casinos or "racinos" of their own. Ron Rosenbaum, who represents Canterbury on the racino issue, said of White Earth: "If they, like we, are interested in helping the horse industry in Minnesota, we'd be happy to talk to them."

John McCarthy, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, which represents other tribes, said his group will strongly oppose the project. He said it is not out of fear of competition but the worry that this could open Minnesota to a range of off-reservation casinos that would ultimately hurt all tribes.

"Once that door is open, it'll never close," McCarthy said.

Staff writer Rachel Blount contributed to this report


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