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White Earth's Detroit Lakes transit station nearly finished

It was nearly two years ago when White Earth officials announced they would renovate the old Detroit Lakes BNSF train depot into a transit center - and now, although a solid opening date hasn't been set yet, the depot is almost done.

White Earth Transportation Director Burny Tibbetts said after overhauling the interior and exterior of the building with new shingles, storm windows and $800,000 of other construction work, the depot will have a coffee shop and a gift shop, which will possibly be operated by Shooting Star Casino.

The White Earth Tribe has nearly completed their refurbishing of the Detroit Lakes train depot, but it may not open until a property tax exemption can be worked out.

The only thing that's putting them behind, he said, is trying to work out a taxing agreement with Becker County.

"The county is trying to tax it at a commercial rate, and we're trying to get exemption with that, but we have to partner with another entity," Tibbetts said.

Becker County Administrator Brian Berg said since the tribe is leasing the property from the railroad, they are not recognized as a government entity by the State of Minnesota, and therefore would need to partner with a larger government entity, like the county, city or state, in order to be tax exempt.

Berg said the county has not been involved in dialogue with White Earth about this to his knowledge, although he did receive a message from their attorney Tuesday and returned the call.

He said a partnership could take a while, and exactly who would be able to use the services would have to be discussed.

"If they were looking at the service for tribal members only from here to Mahnomen and not for general purposes, then that would have to be discussed," Berg said. "It would be nice to say that we could, but then that's falling on the shoulders of the people that pay taxes here, and they probably wouldn't be very happy about it if they couldn't use the services."

However, Berg said the tribe wouldn't have to wait for an agreement before the depot could be opened - White Earth would just have to pay property taxes for a short time.

"It shouldn't be the only hurdle," he said. "If they opened it and then three months later we reached an agreement, then they would only have to pay taxes on those three months."

Based on the current assessed estimated market value and classification for 2010, Becker County Assessor Steve Skoog said in an e-mail that the estimated annual tax on the property would be about $3,600.

White Earth and Becker County would have to reach an agreement by July 1 in order for the property to be exempt from those taxes, Skoog said.

When Detroit Lakes Newspapers first reported on the proposed depot renovation in August 2007, then-transit coordinator Pam Greene said the depot would be up and running by early 2008.

Now, at mid-2009, Tibbetts said they were put behind because health codes required them to change construction plans, as well as the taxation issues.

Although the depot itself hasn't opened, the White Earth Transit busing routes have been operating for nearly two years.

A new sign, featuring the White Earth tribal logo, was erected in front of the depot about six weeks ago.

All in all, the train depot will host Becker County Transit, White Earth Transit, Amtrak, Jefferson Lines busing, and Tibbetts said the City of Detroit Lakes is considering using it as a stop for a renovated trolley, but he said he hadn't heard of that projects' status lately.

The train depot renovation and new White Earth bus routes were a result of federal grant money awarded to White Earth a couple of years ago.