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GUEST COLUMN: More gaming would hurt region

Like other Minnesotans, the Brainerd Dispatch editorial board is concerned about the state’s economy. That seems to be the board’s reasoning for supporting the addition of slot machines at the state’s horse racing tracks, located on the outskirts of the Twin Cities. But what about the economy right here in east central Minnesota, land of lakes and rural communities?

If gaming is expanded in the metro area, it will hurt entire regions of Minnesota, including the Brainerd lakes area. It will essentially transfer the benefits of gaming from the state’s rural economies to the Twin Cities economy.

Today Brainerd is the closest major city to Grand Casino Mille Lacs. Crow Wing County is home to 76 vendors that do business with the casino and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe tribal government, and home to 495 Grand Casino employees. These are businesses and individuals who pay local taxes, spend their money in area stores, and keep the region’s economy going.

Gaming expansion will come at a significant price to many people in this part of the state. In fact, Grand Casino Mille Lacs and Grand Casino Hinckley anticipate a significant loss in revenues. The harsh reality of casino revenue losses will then have a ripple effect on the economy of east central Minnesota. The casinos alone directly employ 3,000 people, 93 percent of whom live in the rural Minnesota counties surrounding the casinos. They also purchase nearly 70 percent of their goods and services from Minnesota vendors, about half of which are located outside the Twin Cities.  

Some of you are likely wondering why expanding gaming in the Twin Cities would hurt communities in our backyards, given that Grand Casinos are located well north of the Twin Cities.  The main issue is that the Twin Cities is our key market for customers — we derive nearly 45 percent of our known business from the metro area, where more than half of Minnesota adults live.  

You might also be thinking that there should be plenty of gaming customers to go around. But in fact, Minnesota is a mature gaming market. This means that rather than attracting new customers, new gaming facilities would take existing customers away from tribal casinos. This is especially true in a scenario where the new facilities will be closer to the customers. Why drive to Grand Casino Mille Lacs when a closer casino is just minutes away?

So, gaming expansion will result in fewer people driving north to Grand Casinos. It will result in less money spent by visitors — and Grand Casinos themselves — at businesses all around the area. As a region, we will not be able to prevent job losses, and we will not be able to replace many of these jobs. There will be families without health insurance, local governments with lower tax revenues to fund essential services, and more people looking for help who today are self-sufficient.

The Brainerd Dispatch editors claim that only “those who choose to gamble” would be burdened if the state expands gaming. In reality, gaming expansion will burden all of east central Minnesota. I hope that state leaders keep in mind that any revenues gained by the state would be offset by the negative impacts on regions like ours.  

Angela Heikes is commissioner of corporate affairs for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. The Band’s Corporate Commission owns and operates Mille Lacs Band businesses, including Grand Casino Mille Lacs and Grand Casino Hinckley.