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Leech Lake Band plans wellness center

CASS LAKE—The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe hopes to build a wellness center in Cass Lake.

Band leaders envision a "pillar of the community" with an indoor track, recreational pool, meeting and community rooms, cultural and ceremonial spaces, a fitness center, a strip of lakeshore, and other amenities open to the public at large—not just Leech Lakers.

"It's a true community center," said LeRoy Staples Fairbanks, a Tribal Council member and one of the project's biggest proponents, who said he was inspired by similar centers in Minnesota and beyond. "We can't only have certain elements of community that are living well or being well. We want this to impact everybody."

The band hopes to build the center on a plot of land owned, at least for the moment, by Cass Lake-Bena Schools. School Board members informally agreed to the land deal on Jan. 23, and voted to enter into more formal negotiations with the band on Jan. 30.

Cass Lake-Bena could accept cash for the land, but district leaders said they prefer to accept land of equal value instead. That's because they'd need to put the land they're selling out for bid, staff said, and Minnesota law requires them to put profits from a sale toward the district's debts—something the district already has mechanisms in place to do.

A tentative deal struck between the band and the district would send the 14-acre plot to the band in exchange for 65 acres adjacent to Cass Lake-Bena's high school and middle school complex, plus an as-yet-undetermined parcel of land to even out the swap, according to Lenny Fineday, a government relations attorney for the Leech Lake band and a recently elected School Board member.

School Board members and nearby resort owners sent 22 questions and comments to band administrators about security, appearance, community education classes, and more. Staff at Highland Resort, which would sit adjacent to the center, said they'd prefer the center itself be built as far from their property as possible and that there would need to be a 10-12 foot wall separating it from the resort.

In response, Leech Lake administrators at the Jan. 23 meeting produced a packet that includes reassurances about security—"there are currently at least 1-2 officers at any given time less than 1,000 feet from the proposed community center"—and the surrounding area's aesthetics.

"Our community has made huge strides in addressing abandoned buildings. With a community project like this, property values will only increase," the packet reads, responding to a question from board member Matt Erickson about making the facility more inviting, plus lockdowns at Cass Lake-Bena Elementary caused by "gun concerns" north of U.S. Highway 2. "Having difficulty in our community such as lockdowns is an even greater reason why we need to invest in the community infrastructure that Cass Lake area sorely needs."

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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