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LEECH LAKE: Leech Lake voters approve new casino plan

Tribal members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe overwhelmingly voted yes to build a new casino in Cass Lake at this location. (Maggi Stivers | Bemidji Pioneer)1 / 2
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CASS LAKE—Tribal members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe overwhelmingly voted yes to build a new casino in Cass Lake.

The referendum vote was held Tuesday, and a total of 1,244 individuals voted yes to build a new $45-50 million casino, or 78 percent, while 341 voted against. In all there were 12 regional polling sites, as well as mail-in voting. Some of the regional polling sites included:

• Cass Lake voted 114-63 in favor.

• Bemidji voted in favor, 11-5.

• Bena voted 18-11 in favor.

Tribal members also voted in metropolitan areas, with a 6-1 vote in Duluth and a 23-7 decision in Minneapolis.

Tuesday's referendum was originally ordered in March by the Leech Lake Tribal Council, which has been discussing the prospect of a new casino for some time, officials said.

According to Leech Lake Tribal Council Chair Faron Jackson Sr., officials opted for a new casino in response to mounting repair needs and maintenance costs at the current Palace Casino, located about 5 miles northwest of Cass Lake. The tribal council also factored in the Palace's origin, as it wasn't initially built as a gaming building, but was rather remodeled into one in the early 1980s.

The Palace Casino is one of three operated by Leech Lake, with the other two including the White Oak Casino near Deer River and the Northern Lights Casino in Walker. Construction of the latter was approved by way of the tribe's last referendum, held in 2000.

New location, too

For the Palace replacement, though, the tribe isn't only looking at a new building, but also a new location. Jackson said the council, based on a feasibility study analyzing the amount of traffic that flows daily on U.S. Highway 2, decided to construct the new casino in an area of Cass Lake across from Teal's Market.

An estimated 3 million cars drive through that area of the highway annually according to the study, which Jackson said made the location much more suitable for the new facility.

In total, the project is expected to cost $45-$50 million and will have more square footage than the current Palace. Additionally, the casino will include a water park.

The approval from voters Tuesday will now allow the tribal government to move forward in its discussions with loan companies for the project. Jackson said the government had been in discussion with competitive loan companies for the project, but was waiting until after the vote to select an exclusive one.

Construction is expected to start on the new Palace in spring 2018, with completion likely at the beginning of 2019. Historically, the Palace has employed between 300-360 while the new casino will employ an estimated 450-500.

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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