Duluth casino profits should be shared by band and cityEditor’s note: The deadline for this column passed before Thursday’s press conference, at which Mayor Don Ness said the city of Duluth is considering the possibility of halting all gaming at Fond-du-Luth Casino, among other options.
By: Virgil Swing, Duluth Budgeteer News
Duluth and Fond du Lac Reservation officials were lovey-dovey 25 years ago when they cooperated to turn a closed Sears store into the downtown Fond-du-Luth Casino. Those days are gone forever. Now they talk in court when they do at all.
Both sides are appealing a Nov. 21 federal court ruling that upheld a decision by the National Indian Gaming Commission that the 1986 action creating the casino was improper. The city wants the ruling overturned while the band disputes the part that requires it to pay the city some $14 million for profit-sharing payments withheld from 2009 to 2011.
I grew up in Cloquet on the Fond du Lac Reservation and have seen over the years all the benefits for band members from the Duluth casino and the much larger Black Bear Casino in Cloquet. It’s a shame those gains came through government-sponsored gambling, but they’ve been crucial for band members.
Like other Indian casino operations in Minnesota, the Fond du Lac Band must take advantage of its current casino monopoly while hoping that the financially strapped state government (which has its own government-sponsored gambling) doesn’t end such gaming or create new forms that compete directly with casinos.
Another risk, expressed in at least two recent letters to the editor in the News Tribune, would be a boycott by non-Indians of the Duluth casino. I’m not a fan of boycotts, and one affecting Fond-du-Luth would cost the city jobs and tourism revenues.
Another example of the lack of cooperation between the city and band was Fond du Lac seeking, without informing the city, federal designation to make an old hotel that adjoins the casino also part of the reservation.
My memory tells me the Duluth casino was the first or one of the first casinos opened outside traditional reservation boundaries. Federal approval for this move came before the National Indian Gaming Commission was created.
It’s impossible for a layman to untangle legal complexities like the casino’s creation or the federal court action that undid it. But I like the idea that a contract is a contract, and it seems Duluth casino profits should be enough to help pay for reservation projects and share some wealth with the city.
Certainly, the downtown casino was a big deal for the band in 1986, since its only gaming profits then came from the Big Bucks Bingo operation run out of a school gym. The Black Bear Casino in Cloquet, which now dwarfs its Duluth cousin, was no more than a gleam in the eyes of tribal officials then.
Reservation officials have clearly been smart enough over the years to know the risks of putting all their economic development eggs into a casino basket, but efforts to diversify its economic base have had mixed results.
The latest such effort was announced in late December, when Fond du Lac agreed to buy radio stations in Cloquet and Moose Lake, adding them to the station it created last fall.
I really hope Indian reservations will join the state someday in getting out of the gambling business because of the harm it causes for problem gamblers, their families and their communities. But it would be a shame if something is not in place before then to provide a solid base for continuing the programs that have improved reservation members’ lives.
Although it is peripheral to today’s topic, I’d also like to see federal courts rule on the many legal doubts about the relationship between Indian tribes with state and local governments and non-Indian residents.
As just one example, the house I grew up in was within the boundaries of the Fond du Lac Reservation, though tribal government then was a tiny shadow of what now exists. But the Fond du Lac Band has since asserted its right to tax and regulate non-Indians living on the reservation, who are not allowed to vote in tribal elections.
That’s an issue worthy of a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court but, for now, I’d be happy if Duluth and the Fond du Lac Band could find a way to get along and share the wealth that comes from casino gambling while it’s still legal.
Editor’s note: The deadline for this column passed before Thursday’s press conference, at which Mayor Don Ness said the city of Duluth is considering the possibility of halting all gaming at Fond-du-Luth Casino, among other options.
Budgeteer opinion columnist Virgil Swing has been writing about Duluth for many years. Contact him at email@example.com.