Location, location, location.
One hundred and twelve acres of golden real estate straddling Interstate 94 in the eastern St. Paul suburbs has a new owner. The Prairie Island Indian Community, proprietor of the wildly successful Treasure Island Resort & Casino near Red Wing, plunked down $4.4 million earlier this year for the parcel in West Lakeland Township, bordering Lake Elmo and Woodbury.
Tribal Council President Shelley Buck has repeatedly underplayed the specter that the 960-member band of Mdewakanton Sioux plans to build a casino at the site. The soft pedaling has served to heighten fears that it's only a matter of time before the new neighbor is a boozing, gambling, and entertainment golem.
Lake Elmo Council Member Anne Smith doesn't believe the tribe bought simply as an investment.
"I would be very nervous if I was a West Lakeland resident because it's very possible there's a casino in their future," she says. "If I lived in West Lakeland, I would be at the forefront lobbying against having something as large and in-your-face… when the West Lakeland Township people have always prided themselves in the same things as Lake Elmo people pride themselves in, which is a lot of open space and rural character and big lots and no high-density housing.
"My gut is telling me they want an east metro casino presence because there isn't one as of yet. Now, I don't have proof of that, but it's my gut feeling."
Geography supports Smith's intuition. Mystic Lake and Running Aces casinos are the closest gambling houses. An operation in West Lakeland would mean a monopoly on the east side, while enticing gamblers from Wisconsin.
The tribe's current home base is north of Red Wing in Goodhue County. Its 3,000-acre reservation is situated uncomfortably close — about 600 yards — from Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island Nuclear Power Plant and nuclear waste storage facility.
One in four tribal members live on the reservation. About half of the band are age 18 and younger.
Federal officials have long-assured the tribe that the storage of radioactive refuse next door is temporary. Yet the government's chronic inability to find the waste casks a permanent home has resulted in an interim nuke dump that smells more like permanent resident status.
Getting away from the facility is one of the reasons for the Twin Cities' land purchase, Buck told MPR reporter Tom Crann last month. She listed economic diversification and the possibility of new housing for some of the band as others.
A Minnesota law that allowed for increased storage at the plant also permits the tribe to purchase up to 1,500 acres of land within a 50-mile radius of the reservation.
West Lakeland sits within that circumference.
The tribe's application last month to put the tract into federal trust raises the stakes. Sanction from the Bureau of Indian Affairs would mean it's taken off the property tax rolls. At the same time, existing zoning ordinances would no longer apply.
The parcel is currently zoned agricultural.
Repeated messages left for West Lakeland officials were not returned.
Tribal spokeswoman Stacey Rammer wouldn't comment on what's in store for the land: "Right now, the tribal council doesn't have any plans to do any development whatsoever."
Perhaps some light comes from an exchange former Lake Elmo City Administrator Clark Schroeder had with a West Lakeland official last winter. Schroeder doesn't remember the name of the township rep, but does recall the million-dollar question he was asked: Would Lake Elmo be willing to extend its sewer and water line into West Lakeland to the 112 acres?
"That tells me they're trying to do something sooner than later," Schroeder says. "If you're interested in [public] sewer, its got to be a bigger than smaller type of development."
Like a casino.