ELIOT GLASSHEIM: High and daunting hurdles block casino’s path

GRAND FORKS -- There are so many obstacles to an Indian casino ever being built in Grand Forks that it seems a very rocky mountain to climb. Many of the obstacles were described when a similar proposal was made about eight years ago, and it is no...

GRAND FORKS - There are so many obstacles to an Indian casino ever being built in Grand Forks that it seems a very rocky mountain to climb.

Many of the obstacles were described when a similar proposal was made about eight years ago, and it is not clear that anything has changed significantly.

• In the first place, the Indian Regulatory Gaming Act of 1988 was passed specifically to allow and regulate the conditions of casino-type gambling on reservations as a means of bringing jobs and economic self-sufficiency to tribal governments. Both the secretary of the Interior and the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission must approve any new request for Indian gaming, on or off reservation.

Off-reservation gaming sites have been approved in only a very few special cases, where a tribe has a strong case to make that they have a historic connection with the off-reservation site.

• Second, the governor of North Dakota is authorized by state law to negotiate a compact with those tribes that wish to pursue gaming. Without his approval of a state-tribal compact, there cannot be another facility.


North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple recently signed a 10-year compact with the five tribes that have existing on-reservation casinos.

Years ago, we were led to believe that then-Gov. John Hoeven was not in favor of expansion of Indian casino gambling to off-reservation sites. We do not know Dalrymple’s attitude toward off-reservation gaming.

But certainly one sticking point that would have to be on his mind is the “slippery slope.” That is, if Grand Forks has an off-reservation casino, Fargo will want one; and if Fargo has one, Bismarck will want one.

So, a decision on this one proposal really is a decision about a major change to North Dakota’s way of life.

• Allowing widespread off-reservation casino gaming would have major impacts to a number of interests.

For example, it is not clear to me that tribes with existing on-reservation casinos would themselves approve of expansion to the major cities. What would happen to their significant investments in existing on-reservation casinos and casino hotels? Would people who gamble at a casino in Grand Forks still visit Spirit Lake?

Would reservation-based casinos be competing with off-reservation casinos and be forced to close down?

Another impact that easily can be anticipated if off-reservation gaming were approved by the governor is that once casino gaming is widespread, there will be strong pressure - on the basis of fairness - for the state to legalize casinos owned and operated by non-Indians.


The Indian monopoly on casino gaming works only so long as it is contained within reservations.

• Despite these many obstacles, should the governor be inclined to approve off-reservation gaming, there would be another hurdle.

Off-reservation gaming specifically is prohibited in state law. That means the Legislature would have to debate the matter and try to change state law.

I cannot help but think that the statewide nonprofit community vigorously would oppose this, as would some of the Indian tribes that have on-reservation casinos as well as a significant number of social service workers and opponents of widespread gambling from the religious community.

My guess is that it wouldn’t pass - and if it did, it would be referred to a statewide vote.

n Two other concerns are troubling. The existence of a plot of land owned by a sovereign nation smack dab in the middle of a home-rule city may well set us up for decades of legal jurisdictional disputes.

Then, too, the potential for negative impacts on university education - higher drop-out rates, lower course completions, longer graduation times and greater student-loan debt - may make a casino in Grand Forks too risky.

With all these difficulties, the only reason to even consider off-reservation gambling here is the seductive promise of large sums of easy money moving quickly through the city. Expecting the promoters to deliver all this new wealth at little social, economic, infrastructure or public safety cost seems Pollyannaish to me.


n Going beyond the procedural obstacles to translating this dream - this fantasy? - into reality, there is the question of whether it’s a good idea to have the gaming industry be a significant piece of Grand Forks’ economy. I myself have serious doubts.

There is just so much money in people’s pockets for investment and for purchasing goods and services. Will casino gambling in Grand Forks expand the wealth or merely redistribute consumer spending from buying groceries and clothing to gaming losses?

Our unemployment already is low; do we want to create more low-wage gaming jobs? In a university town, do we want to encourage investment in an industry that glorifies chance rather than training, knowledge and skill?

One cannot blame the tribe for looking for new ways to increase jobs and wealth for their members. But tying one’s future economic security to a project with so many obstacles to success may turn out to be a bad bet.

State Rep. Glassheim, D-Grand Forks, is a former member of the Grand Forks City Council. As a council member in 2006, he helped lead the fight against the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa’s earlier request to build a casino in Grand Forks.  

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