Leaders from Rochester and the Prairie Island Indian Community met face-to-face Monday to discuss Prairie Island's plan to convert 1,200 acres of Elk Run into tribal land.
“It answered a lot of questions,” said Rochester City Council Member Shaun Palmer, speaking to Tribal President Shelley Buck, who gave a 20-minute presentation on the tribe and its plans for the Elk Run land near Pine Island.
Palmer was among City Council members who sought more information regarding Prairie Island's request for support of a potential Congressional designation giving the land reservation status.
Council Member Nick Campion also indicated the added information was helpful.
“I realize sometimes it feels like one more step along the way, but it’s also good to get this additional information,” he said. “It makes it easier for the community to understand what’s happening.”
The effort to extend the tribe’s reservation land will create additional housing for its membership.
Prairie Island has used up most of its current land. A little more than 200 of the tribe’s 1,030 enrolled members live on the reservation along the Mississippi River near Red Wing, according to Buck.
“We can’t expand any further in residential lots,” she said, noting another 150 are on a waiting list for 1-acre residential lots.
She said the current reservation is limited by three factors: a risk of flooding, a nearby nuclear plant and an active rail line. All three pose threats, she added.
The flooding stems from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers construction of Lock and Dam No. 3 in 1938. The infrastructure flooded acres of existing tribal land and put other land in a floodplain, making it unusable for most construction.
The proximity to Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant also makes housing a challenge.
“A lot of the younger kids don’t want to live near the nuclear power plant or deal with flooding every year,” Buck said.
The third challenge is an increased amount of rail traffic through the area. The rail line crosses the only road providing access to the reservation. Rail-line freight includes frequent loads of crude oil, which adds to potential challenges.
Buck said the acres near Pine Island — part of the failed Elk Run development — provide a prime opportunity to expand the tribe’s supply of land and attract members who want to return to the area. The land meets federal requirements by being within 50 miles of the original reservation and is within the 1,500-acre limit.
Placing the land into federal trust allows the tribe to access federal government programs while maintaining its right to govern the land as its own civil jurisdiction.
Buck said the land will also offer the tribe options for future diversification of its economic portfolio.
While the tribe’s casino, Treasure Island, has helped it become self sufficient and fund programs from family services and health care to law enforcement, she said it’s important to find other income sources, which could be built on the new land.
“We don’t want to compete with anyone,” she said, previously noting that includes the tribe’s existing gaming operations. “We want to help build this area and make it better.”
So far, the tribe has received written support from Olmsted and Goodhue counties, Pine Island and Oronoco, as well as Xcel Energy.
Rochester City Council President Randy Staver said he expects Rochester will be added to the list on Aug. 5, when the council revisits a request for a resolution supporting the tribe.
“I expect it will fly through this time,” he said.