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Tribal casinos pay rural Minnesotans

ST. PAUL - Tribal casinos contribute $285 million to Minnesota's rural community annually, a new study shows.

The report also indicates the casino industry is "mature," and not able to sustain more casinos without hurting existing ones.

"There is an assumption out there that this is a never-ending industry," said John McCarthy, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, which funded the study.

The association is best known for fighting efforts of some northern Minnesota tribes to establish a Twin Cities casino. The attempts failed in past years and there appears to be no significant movement for such a casino in this year's legislative session.

Economist C. Ford Runge of the University of Minnesota said he and researcher Barry Ryan discovered casinos are important to rural Minnesota counties where they are located. Their study included all American Indian casinos except White Earth and Red Lake bands of Chippewa, which did not participate and are not active members of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association.

An example of the impact of casinos is in Pine and Mille Lacks counties, where 17 percent of total payroll comes from Grand Casino facilities owned by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. While that is the largest percentage, other counties show significant casino payrolls, including Renville and Cass, which receive 13 percent of their payrolls from casinos.

Other counties whose casino employees receive more than 5 percent of total county payroll are Scott, Goodhue, Carlson, Yellow Medicine and Cook.

Residents of Goodhue County, home to Treasure Island Resort and Casino, receive the most dollars a year in casino wages -- $700 million.

Chairman Kevin Leecy of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa said the study shows tribal casinos are doing what Gov. Rudy Perpich wanted when he signed gambling compacts with tribes in 1989 - to bring jobs to rural Minnesota.

"We shared that vision and we made it real," Leecy said. "Today we have all the facts we need to prove that Indian gaming jobs are a positive force for economic prosperity throughout rural Minnesota."

All casinos are in rural areas except for Mystic Lake, which is run by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in the southern Twin Cities.

Runge and Ryan said rural casinos paid $211 million to 9,100 workers in 2005. Wages ranged from $5 to $9.30 an hour across the state, compared to state minimum wage of $6.15 for large employers.

However, Runge and Ryan said more important than just wages is the fact that most casino employees receive better health care and retirement benefits than other rural residents. Many other rural workers may not even have health care benefits.

More than 80 percent of eligible casino workers have health insurance, the study shows. Many even have dental or other benefits not often seen in rural areas.

"They are unusually good benefits for rural Minnesota," Runge said. "It is really something to be envied."

The Runge-Ryan study showed the number of casino jobs has been static for several years.

"Gaming has basically stabilized in Minnesota," Leecy said. "The next step may be diversification."

Bois Forte, for instance, added what ended up as a popular golf course, constructed with casino profits.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.