CASS LAKE, Minn. - After more than three decades of operating the Palace Casino and Hotel northwest of Cass Lake, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is considering a change.

Leech Lake tribal members will vote May 16 on a referendum to decide whether the reservation should construct a new $45 million to $50 million Palace Casino and Hotel in Cass Lake. Mail-in ballots on the referendum already have been sent out to eligible voters, and six informational meetings were held on the reservation, as well as in other communities such as Minneapolis and Duluth.

The referendum comes after a March meeting where the Leech Lake Tribal Council supported conducting the vote.

The Leech Lake band operates the Palace Casino and Hotel northwest of Cass Lake. In recent years the facility has faced mounting maintenance issues, officials said.

"We've been talking about a new casino here for a couple of years because the current building is in need of so many repairs," said Leech Lake Tribal Council Chairman Faron Jackson Sr. "The Palace itself wasn't an original gaming building when it was established, either. It was made into one in the early '80s and was remodeled, but it wasn't built as a casino."

As a result, Jackson said the tribal government is proposing a new building.

"We have some competitive loan companies that we've been in discussion with, but there hasn't been one nailed down exclusively yet," Jackson said. "We're waiting for the outcome on the referendum. Everything is contingent on that."

Polling stations will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. May 16, and the official count verification for referendum votes will likely be completed by May 17. Eligible voters both on and off the reservation who have current addresses on file began receiving mail-in ballots in April.

Jackson said the last time a referendum such as this was used on the reservation was in 2000 as part of the process to build the Northern Lights Casino in Walker. Leech Lake operates three gaming establishments, with the third being White Oak Casino in Deer River.

The number will remain at three with a new Palace location. Jackson said the current facility would be closed and the tribe would use it for other types of services.

He said the proposed location for the new Palace is along U.S. Highway 2 in Cass Lake. It was chosen based on a recent feasibility study.

If the referendum passes, Jackson said construction would start in spring 2018 and be set on a nine-month schedule with completion expected at the beginning of 2019. Historically, the Palace has had between 300 and 360 employees, but between 450 and 500 workers are expected with a new Palace.

"We want to be competitive with gaming here," Jackson said. "We want to add more square footage and a water park. We want a cleaner building that's more updated. One that can attract more customers to come visit our gaming establishment or shows."

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