By a vote of 217-141, members of the Lac du Flambeau Tribe Wednesday approved submitting a fee-to-trust application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to allow construction of a new tribal off-reservation casino at Shullsburg.
In 2004, the tribe purchased 92 acres for the proposed casino, but the BIA would not give its approval.
Though the project was initially received enthusiastically several years ago in Shullsburg, the effort was waylaid because of the political climate at the time. The tribe and city officials couldn’t get governors Thompson, McCallum nor Doyle to sign on to the plan.
But with changes at the federal level and Gov. Scott Walker promoting job creation, Tribal Chairman Tom Maulson said, “We have to move. Obama believes the Indian people need to be a part of America today. He wants to put people to work. [Wisconsin Gov. Scott] Walker wants to put people to work. It’s a win-win.”
He went on to say, “We didn’t stop the project, it was political leadership.”
“The tribe has long believed that building an off-reservation casino can go a long way toward helping us meet our unmet needs,” Maulson said. “No one believes that BIA approval will be an easy accomplishment, but what will happen if we do nothing?”
If the tribe’s application is approved they could build a hotel and casino larger than Lake of the Torches, including a 30,000 square-foot business center and campground.
A referendum in Shullsburg prior to the initial 2004 application passed by 87 percent. A formal Shullsburg Citizens Group led by the city’s mayor, Tom Lethlean, is lobbying elected officials in support of the project.
Casino could aid quality of life
Tribal officials have said the casino would improve quality of life in Lac du Flambeau, funding health care and dental care improvements, and supporting elder care, education, community nutrition, and law enforcement.
The tribe has had a formal working group studying the issue and their findings have been presented to tribal members in a series of six information meetings and two public hearings.
“We’ve carefully examined the viability of the Shullsburg opportunity, including recent actions by the BIA, conducted new financial and market feasibility studies, evaluated prior work product and held talks with Shullsburg officials,” said Duane Chapman, the tribal work group’s leader, said.
Chapman said that he was glad to be moving forward.
“One thing that we learned while preparing for the referendum was just how big a challenge this will be. I am glad that we can get moving,” Chapman said. “The next steps in the process will be re-commissioning the work on the Environmental Impact Study and redoing the application. We’ve also got to get together with Mayor Lethlean and Shullsburg.”
The Bureau of Indian Affairs has now returned to a policy that considers off-reservation casinos on a case-by-case basis.
That change has helped open the door for tribes to pursue off-reservation ventures, such as the one in Shullsburg.
Lethlean said that at a 2011 meeting representatives of the governor’s office laid out four criteria that had to be met in order to secure the governor’s approval:
• The project had to entail more than just a casino – it should also include a complex that would feature the casino, a hotel and possibly even a golf course and/or waterpark.
• It must have the support of the local community;
• It must have the support of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; and
• It must have the support of all other tribes across the state of Wisconsin.
Maulson said the overall cost of the project could be as much as $50 million to $75 million and that could result in up to 600 jobs, depending on the size of the facility. Management-level positions could earn between $40,000 and $50,000 annually and $20,000 for “front line” employees.
The casino complex would be located west of the city of Shullsburg off Hwy. 11. The tribe owns 93 acres of land at the location, seven acres of which lie within the city’s limits.
As part of the approval, some of that 93 acres would have to be annexed to the city, according to Lethlean.
“It’s not just the base jobs [at the casino]. It’s what can develop from there,” Lethlean said. “It’s like we’ve got a snowball at the top of the hill and we just need to give it a push and it will roll downhill and get bigger and bigger as it goes. We will, of course, benefit from the casino being located here, but there will be benefits and development in the Lac du Flambeau area because of the revenue generated by the casino here.”
Lethlean said he and others have heard the stories about how many times money earned in a community rolls over in the community and helps create additional jobs.
“The ripple effect will be tremendous,” Lethlean said.
Lethlean said over the last few weeks he personally has only heard one negative comment about the possible location of the casino in his city.
“And it came from someone who is not a resident of our community and he is a member of the clergy who was speaking up about the issue of gambling in general.”
Lethlean said others he’s talk to have said to him “when’s it going to be here?”
In April 2003, Shullsburg residents voted 540-79 in favor, an 87 percent approval, of building the casino, convention center and hotel complex.
Lethlean said he didn’t think another referendum would be required in Shullsburg or Lafayette County because to-date no government body has requested it and because of the overwhelming success of the first referendum. Lethlean said the community mindset hasn’t changed when it comes to the economic impact of a project such as this.
Lethlean said his community and the area is in desperate need of more jobs and the casino construction will not only provide jobs for workers who help build it, but for people who work at the casino.
“And of course that ripple effect again will most certainly cause other businesses to start up or grow, generating more money with this community’s economy,” Lethlean said.
Joe VanDeLaarschot may be reached at email@example.com.