ONAMIA -- Indians and non-Indians took another step forward Tuesday in pursuing a regional approach to economic development.
About 100 people attended the East Central Minnesota Business Development Summit at Grand Casino Mille Lacs Events and Convention Center in Onamia.
The path to a regional economic summit began when Melanie Benjamin, Mille Lacs Band chief executive, proposed the idea in 2003. The Mille Lacs Band hosted the summit. The effort examined economic trends, growth corridors and potential partnerships. And the regional approach brought diverse groups together -- in some cases for the first time. They shared common goals of attracting jobs and fostering business growth.
By the numbers
The Mille Lacs Band has 3,665 members, including 1,981 who live on the reservation.
The band owns and operates Grand Casino Mille Lacs and Grand Casino Hinckley, employing about 3,000 people.
Grand Casino Mille Lacs, which opened in 1991, is the largest employer in Mille Lacs County.
About 94 percent of casino employees are non-Indian.
Since opening, the band's two casinos have generated $53.5 million in federal and state taxes through employee wages.
The first summit in the fall of 2003 helped develop topic areas. Focus groups were established with members meeting during the year. Tuesday they related progress, sought additional participation and identified goals.
The meeting Tuesday provided a fresh opportunity for Indians and non-Indians to develop a dialogue on economic development. Breakout sessions looked at telecommunications, health care, JOBZ zones, construction/skilled labor, tourism/recreation and arts and crafts. One session had an FBI agent talking about economic espionage. Central Lakes College instructors talked about the basics in starting a business.
Beyond the economic development, both summits offered an opportunity for frank talk between band members and non-Indians. Conversations covered difficult issues, from school drop-out rates to what the band pays in taxes.
Robert Schlichte, Grand Casino Mille Lacs employee, spoke in a breakout session on the economic effect of Indian gaming. He said before the casinos at Mille Lacs and Hinckley opened in the early 1990s, the Mille Lacs Reservation poverty rate was almost 81 percent. Now the poverty percentage is less than 17 percent, Schlichte said. The band reported its members received about $5,000 each from casino revenues in 2003.
Rick Anderson, tribal government affairs coordinator, said the band's revenues have gone into building houses, public buildings and infrastructure like the new wastewater treatment plant that will serve 10,000 people outside the reservation. Since 1991, the band has built 200 new homes on or near the reservation with parks, playground and hockey rinks in those neighborhoods, Anderson said.
"Our priority is to create community, not just homes," he said.
Kathy Gaalswyk, Initiative Foundation president, asked if efforts since the first summit started have helped identify small business opportunities. The Initiative Foundation is a summit co-sponsor, along with East Central Energy, Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative, Merrill Lynch, Wells Fargo and Woodlands National Bank.
"I think it has," said Mitch Corbine, Mille Lacs Band commissioner of corporate affairs. "There is going to be progress down the road."
RENEE RICHARDSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.
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