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Casino discussion involves communities

GRAND FORKS — Representatives of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians will be back in Grand Forks tonight to discuss the possibility of a casino here with the Grand Forks City Council.

But Grand Forks isn’t the only community that the Turtle Mountain representatives need to convince — after tonight’s City Council meeting, they’re bringing their plans to their own council Thursday.

“We’ve got to come home and start an open dialogue with our membership,” said Patrick Marcellais, secretary and treasurer for the Turtle Mountain tribal government, in an interview Monday.

Members of both the tribal government and City Council have expressed interest in an “open dialogue” about the casino, addressing concerns of council members and the public.

There will likely be some negative feedback from both sides, Marcellais said, but “the people who are most vocal are the ones who are against things.” He said he hasn’t heard any negative comments from the Turtle Mountain community yet this year.

The Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation is about 85 miles northwest of Devils Lake, near the Canadian border. Its government is based in Belcourt.

Tribal leaders are pushing for the casino because they believe it will boost Grand Forks’ tourism and provide jobs for Turtle Mountain’s membership.

The reservation has 67 percent unemployment — much higher than the statewide average of about 2.5 percent unemployment, Chairman Richard McCloud said last week. It’s the poorest reservation in the state, he said.

Turtle Mountain is far from the Oil Patch, and it doesn’t have as many hunting and tourism options as other reservations, Marcellais said, so most of the tribe’s revenue is from its casino in Belcourt.

The tribe’s Belcourt casino employs about 400 people, Marcellais said. The tribe’s second-biggest employer is its government with about 300 jobs, and the Belcourt grocery store probably has the third-highest number of employees, he said.

Because there haven’t been any details decided yet for a Grand Forks casino, Marcellais said he couldn’t estimate the number of jobs it would provide.

Economic options

Delvin Cree, a member of Turtle Mountain’s tribal treaty council, said he agrees the tribe has an employment problem — he described the Belcourt casino as “overstaffed” — but he said he’s not sure if a Grand Forks casino is the answer.

The tribe should be capitalizing on North Dakota’s oil boom by sending workers to the oilfields, Cree said, adding that he has worked in the Oil Patch.

But with the housing crunch in western North Dakota, it’s difficult for anyone to move there, and Cree said there isn’t any housing support from the tribe for its members to move west.

There are some Turtle Mountain members living in Grand Forks who would benefit from a casino here, Cree said, but he’s worried about the tribal government putting its efforts into something that has already been put off twice.

The idea of a Turtle Mountain casino in Grand Forks was first brought up in 2004, and then again in 2009, but both attempts died out because of lack of support on city and state levels. State and federal approval would be required for the Turtle Mountain tribe to build an off-reservation casino in Grand Forks.

The city passed a resolution in 2005 stating that it’s interested in working with the tribe, and council member Doug Christensen reminded tribal leaders at a meeting last week that the resolution still stands.

Charly Haley
Charly Haley covers city government for the Grand Forks Herald. As night reporter, she also has many general assignments. Before working at the Herald, she was a reporter at the Jamestown Sun and interned at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, Detroit Lakes Newspapers and the St. Cloud Times. Haley is a graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead, and her hometown is Sartell, Minn.
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