The waiting game: all's quiet on the casino front as processes play out
A longer-than-expected permitting and environmental review process has temporarily stalled the Star Lake Casino project, and has caused its original opening date to be pushed back.
Representatives for the proposed Shooting Star development had first said the facility would be complete in 2017. Later, they said early 2018. Now, the target date is late fall 2018.
Shooting Star General Manager Bill Marsh said developers have been working with Otter Tail County officials to complete a voluntary Environmental Assessment Worksheet, or EAW. Once that's done, he said, it will go to the county Planning Commission and then, if it's approved there, on to the county Board of Commissioners.
The EAW requires verification by a third party before it can be deemed complete. It's gone back and forth over the past few months for some minor tweaks and additions, but Marsh said he believes the EAW is now close to completion, and should be on the county board's desk by February or March.
Based on information in the EAW and public comments, the board will decide whether a more comprehensive environmental assessment of the project, called an Environmental Impact Statement, will be needed.
Two major steps toward construction of the casino are on hold right now: 1) A Conditional Use Permit Application, which would pave the way for a parking lot adjacent to the casino; and 2) A Wetland Replacement Application, which would allow wetlands lost on Star Lake to be replaced by new wetlands created in Becker and Roseau counties. Both of these applications require approval by the county board, and the board has tabled decisions on both until the environmental review process is complete.
The project timeline, "is all based on when the Conditional Use Permit is granted," Marsh said. "Originally we had planned to achieve that in October or November, but now that's been pushed back a few months... It all hinges on the EAW being complete."
Stakeholders are also waiting on a federal permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, related to discharging fill material into about 8 acres of wetlands. The public comment period on that permit ended Nov. 28, and there's been no word yet on when a final decision might be announced by the Corps.
Also in the picture is a Limited Area Star Lake Comprehensive Plan. The plan was put together over the course of several months with input from multiple stakeholders. A final version was published Dec. 30 on the county's website, at Nick" target="_blank">www.co.otter-tail.mn.us/DocumentCenter/View/9713. Nick
NickLeonard, Otter Tail County's director of tourism and economic development, said the comprehensive plan is the only thing he's heard much about in regards to the casino lately. The plan is intended "to help the county and White Earth and the Star Lake Township Association plan for the impact and opportunities associated with (the casino development)," he explained. "The expectation is that people will use it as a guiding reference, should the project go forward."
Though Leonard once fielded numerous calls from the public about the casino—from people either wanting to be a part of the project to those wanting to air their concerns—he said things have been quiet lately, presumably as people wait to hear more on the EAW and federal permit.
The Star Lake Casino is being built on the south arm of Star Lake, in southwest Dent, by White Earth Nation, which also operates casinos in Mahnomen and Bagley, Minn.
Plans for the 270-acre complex were first revealed last spring, and have since been the subject of multiple public meetings as well as countless closed-door discussions at private homes and cabins throughout the area. Comments from locals have ranged from very positive and supportive to the complete opposite of that. The project has been publicly criticized by some Star Lake area property owners for its possible negative environmental consequences.
A Star Lake Concerned Citizens Group formed in opposition to the casino soon after plans for it came to light. In previous statements to the media, the group has noted the Star Lake area's sensitive wetlands, as well as its populations of loons, trumpeter swans, bald eagles and other birds, which use the area for nesting and migration. The group fears that such a large development could have harmful effects on the lake and its surrounding flora and fauna.
Marsh said 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 casino and resort 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.
Marsh said the development would stimulate the economy through the creation of jobs and increased foot traffic, improving overall tourism throughout the area.
Leonard agreed that the casino could be good for the local economy. He said as long as it's done in a thoughtful and responsible way, the development could be a "great benefit and bonus" to Otter Tail County.
"It will bring more people and amenities to the area," he said. "There are some people who think it will be the best thing ever for our area, and some people who think it'll be the worst. I think the reality is, it'll be somewhere in the middle... I don't think it'll be devastating for the area, but it's also not going to be a savior."