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Oacoma calls tribal casino 'too big'

OACOMA -- In the debate regarding a potential $52.5 million casino on its outskirts, the town of Oacoma voiced its opposition to the project quite clearly Thursday night.

In a public forum at the Oacoma Community Center, town board president Mike Schreiber led an hour-long talk about the proposed Lower Brule Sioux Tribe casino. He reiterated, as the city had last fall in a 38-page document submitted to the U.S. Department of Interior, that a casino of that size would be too big and too imposing for the town of 450 people to handle. The town prepared brochures and a presentation outlining why it opposes the project.

"It doesn't fit our community. It's too big," Schreiber said, adding that the casino plans are "wonderful and glamorous," but don't answer any of the important questions for the town, which range from area housing shortages to crime.

There's concern about the types of jobs that the casino would create, and Schreiber noted that Chamberlain and Oacoma businesses already advertise for service industry jobs they have trouble filling.

"Will it be like a Walmart, where most of them are part time and have no benefits?" Schreiber asked.

There also is concern about water flow in the city, because the complex will be built over a gully above town. Schreiber said the community already is impacted by a few inches of rainfall, because the water flows through ditches -- and if the water can't flow freely, it will flood the city. City officials project residents would have to pay $250 per month for water and sewer upgrades. Oacoma doesn't currently have a storm sewer system in place.

"There's a reason we don't have one," Schreiber said. "It's because we don't need one."

Schreiber stressed the city won't receive property taxes or sales taxes from the casino, therefore the school district or the city and state won't benefit. And if the tribe wanted to further develop on the 92 acres it owns, it would not need to pay taxes on that, either. He said that while the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe has said it wants to be a good neighbor, there's nothing obligating the tribe to help the city.

"Do we believe them? We have no reason to doubt them," Schreiber told the crowd of about 100 community members. "But there's no way we can make agreements that are binding us into the future."

Schreiber cited a scenario where the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa tribe in Minnesota had reached an agreement with Duluth, Minn., to make payments to the city. After decades of casino operation, the National Indian Gaming Commission ordered the payments to stop, because they violated federal law. Duluth was left with a deficit of nearly $6 million.

"Think about what even a $1 million loss would do to us," Schreiber said.

The town cites the letter from then-Gov. Bill Janklow in December 1998, where he supported putting the 92 acres into a federal trust based on the assurance that the tribe would not use the land for a gaming facility.

The tribe has plans for a single-floor casino, an 800-seat theater and a truck stop in an initial phase that would cost $34 million and take 24 months to build. Developers have also shown a second phase that would include a 27,000-square foot events center, a five-story hotel with 75 rooms and a water park, to cost $18.5 million. There's no timeline for either phase of the project.

Schreiber said the town is not necessarily against the casino, but its size. Townspeople asked questions later regarding the environmental impact study being done by the tribe, and urged others to write to federal and state leaders to voice their opposition. There was also concern about the traffic at the intersection of state Highway 16 and Exit 260 off Interstate 90, which Schreiber called the "craziest intersection for 100 miles."

"This is a gamble," he said. "This is a bet."

In March, the tribe held a pair of public meetings to answer questions regarding the project and said it would likely be the last time the tribe would hold meetings. The next stage of the process includes sending the draft environmental assessment to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in April and a final version in July. If approved at that point, it would go to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who would need to make a decision. South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard would have the final say on the casino's construction approval. That process is in place because the land is not adjacent to the tribe's reservation -- it is located about 5 miles south of the Lower Brule reservation.