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McFeely: Commissioners get an earful on northern Minn. casino project

PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn.—A steady stream of opponents made their way to microphones inside the Pelican Rapids High School auditorium Thursday, June 15, voicing concerns to Otter Tail County commissioners about a proposed casino project on Star Lake.

Their goal was unmistakable: To have the commissioners call for an environmental impact statement to fully study the effect of what's being called the largest commercial construction project in county history.

"If there ever was a commercial project in Otter Tail County that warranted an EIS, this would be it," said Jason Gorr, a property owner on Star Lake. "Too many things can go wrong. The risk is too high."

At issue is a massive 270-acre complex planned by the White Earth Band of Chippewa, which already runs two casinos in Mahnomen and Bagley. The Shooting Star Casino and Resort at Star Lake would include a casino, RV park, convention center, restaurant and bar.

It would be located on County Road 41 off the south arm of the lake in a remote area. The proposed development area includes a low swampy area near the lake that would require a tremendous amount of fill to make it suitable for development.

The project was first proposed in September 2015 and was supposed to be completed by this year, but now its completion date has been delayed until late 2018. For now, the only outward sign of the complex is a sign erected near the property that reads "The Casino? Not a done deal." It was placed there by the Star Lake Concerned Citizens Group.

About 200 people, many who own homes or cabins on the lake, filled the auditorium and gave the county commissioners a constant stream of information as to why they oppose the project. There were no fireworks or bickering. In fact, the commissioners sat quietly and took notes as a few dozen speakers made their case in three-minute blocks. Applause followed each speaker when they finished their presentation.

The thread of consistency was that each speaker urged the board to call for an EIS, a detailed analysis that would dive deeply into the impact of the project from an environmental, social and economic standpoint.

"This is about the worst spot you could find in Otter Tail County for a project like this," said Jeff Bursey.

Most of the speakers pointed out the potential damage the project would do to wild rice beds located in the area, as well as waterfowl and fish habitat. Other concerns included water pollution, traffic, workforce shortage issues, lack of law enforcement, the smell from sewage lagoons, light and noise pollution, the decline of gaming in Minnesota and the long-time sustainability of the casino.

Bill Crowell, a tribal member of White Earth, said the casino the band recently completed in Bagley isn't doing as well as expected and that should be a red flag for the Star Lake project. He was one of several White Earth band members who spoke in opposition to the project.

"We need to be good neighbors and what's going on out there is not being a good neighbor," Crowell said.

Many speakers said they would support a casino in another part of the county—one person suggested the Thumper Pond resort in the city of Ottertail as a possible site.

The meeting was part of a 30-day comment period that ends Wednesday, June 21. After that, commissioners with either forward the casino plan to the county planning commission or call for an environmental impact statement. The citizens who spoke made clear what they want to happen. The call for an EIS was unanimous.

"Why risk an area that has been so special for waterfowl and wildlife for so long?" asked Ty Dayton, president of the Star Lake Concerned Citizens Group.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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