Shelley Buck said the Prairie Island Indian Community hopes to help fuel Southeast Minnesota’s continued growth.
“We want to be good neighbors and see the region expand,” the Tribal Council president said. “With (Destination Medical Center) in Rochester, we think we can be an amenity for everybody in the area and help with building that and making that a huge success.”
Prairie Island Indian Community purchased 1,200 acres on the edge of Pine Island in December and is seeking to place the land into trust, making it an official reservation.
Part of the process of establishing a trust has been gathering support from surrounding communities. Buck said that has been a simple matter until the question was put before the Rochester City Council earlier this month.
“So far, we’ve only had communities say ‘yes’ and support us,” she said.
The Rochester council didn’t say "no" to the request, but members did indicate they want more discussion before solidifying support.
“I think being a good neighbor is a two-way street, and I think they need to tell us what they are going to do or what they would like us to do,” Council Member Shaun Palmer said.
The council voted 6-1 to table the request for support until more information could be obtained. Council Member Patrick Keane cast the only vote opposing the delay.
The council has tentatively scheduled a conversation on the issue during its July 29 afternoon meeting. Buck said she’s willing to continue the discussion that started with Mayor Kim Norton and City Council President Randy Staver.
“”I’m OK meeting with anybody,” she said, noting the conversation started with the mayor and council president in an effort to observe protocols used with other communities, including Olmsted County, where commissioners approved a letter of support in May.
Council Member Michael Wojcik said he wants to approve city support, but feels public discussion with the council is required.
“This is a very complicated issue with lots of mines that you can run into, and I’d like to see some real community engagement on this, because it potentially has real dramatic impacts for our community,” he said, citing the potential for different taxation and regulation practices on tribal land.
Palmer more specifically raised the question of whether a casino would be part of any development on the property that makes up approximately 65 percent of the former Elk Run site.
Buck said a casino is definitely not planned, and noted it requires an added layer of approvals.
“Putting a casino on it isn’t as easy as everybody thinks it is,” she said. The tribal council is more interested in investing in its Treasure Island operation.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act prohibits gaming on most tribal land acquired after 1988, with a handful of exceptions, making the process for federal approval even more challenging.
Buck said the primary use of the Elk Run land hasn’t changed.
“Our first goal is housing,” she said. “That’s why we bought the land — housing.”
The Prairie Island Indian Community purchased the Elk Run property to replace land lost when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Lock and Dam Number 3 in 1938. Combined with concerns faced from the nearby nuclear plant, the tribe reports only 30 percent of its membership can be accommodated on the current reservation.
“This is a land-claim settlement,” Buck said of the Elk Run purchase and effort to put the land in trust. “We are looking to be compensated for the land that was taken from us illegally by the Army Corps in the ‘30s. We feel this is the best way for the federal government to resolve our issue and our claim against them.”
Additionally, she said tribal members need safe housing options, away from flooding threats and the nuclear facility.
Proposed legislation for congressional approval is being prepared, Buck said,, but no date has been set for submittal.
For now, she said the tribe continues to hammer out plans for the site, with some business development likely in the mix due to the site’s access to U.S. Highway 52.
“We plan to do some, we just don’t know what,” Buck said. “Some of that land is prime commercial land.”
She said she’s already had conversations with local community leaders in an effort to determine what type of businesses could enhance the local market and what is needed in the area, but noted most private developers will likely face the same taxes and regulations seen outside tribal land.
“We want to know if there is something we can do to help the region,” she said, adding that encouraging development will also help the tribe diversify its economic portfolio.
Wojcik said he sees options for such possibilities. “There’s an opportunity to build a transit-oriented community out there,” he said, noting it could grow the regional workforce.
He added his only concern is that the communities stay engaged.
“I have a tremendous desire to welcome this band of the Dakota into the community,” he said, noting he simply wants the council to better understand what is planned.