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CROW AGENCY - The Crow Tribe moved one step closer Friday to securing a $3 million loan for a new building to house the existing Little Big Horn Casino.

In a special session Friday morning, the Crow Legislature approved a joint action resolution as the next step in obtaining a loan from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Tribe of Minnesota. The lawmakers could give their final approval to the project as early as next week.

The vote came just in time to keep the tribe from having to close the Crow Agency casino. In late April, the tribe's executive branch agreed to a May 28 deadline to finalize a financing plan to build a new casino.

That deadline was imposed by the National Indian Gaming Commission. Friday's action is deemed enough to keep the casino open for now.

The NIGC has given the tribe until Nov. 1 to construct a new building to house the casino or shut it down.

Based on the commission's new policies regarding structures that house casinos, the present building falls far short. It lacks fire sprinklers and other public safety requirements.

The red-and-white casino, visible off Interstate 90, started out as a hotel when it was built in the 1970s. On Friday morning, Vice Secretary Darrin Old Coyote joked that "it's the only building, when it rains outside, it rains inside."

Crow Tribal Chairman Cedric Black Eagle introduced the joint action resolution, after legislators met in executive session for about a half hour. Black Eagle thanked the lawmakers for agreeing to meet with the executive branch "for this important economic development phase we are embarking on."

Black Eagle, as well as other speakers, addressed the Legislature in English and in the Crow language. He said the joint work by the two branches of government could produce more jobs for the tribe, which continues to battle double-digit unemployment.

The casino has 80 employees. Once the new casino is built - the first phase of a multiphase plan - another 10 to 20 jobs will be added, not counting temporary construction jobs.

Rebuilding the casino is not about the executive branch, the legislative branch or the Absaloka Casino Enterprise Inc. (ACE) board that oversees gaming on the reservation, Black Eagle said.

"It's about people of our tribe having new options with a new facility," he said.

Tribal attorney Heather Whiteman Runs Him reviewed a chronology of the casino's woes. As far back as 2007, the NIGC informed the Crow Tribe that its casino building had a number of defects.

The tribe was one of several that received such warnings, Whiteman Runs Him said. After considering their options, tribal executives decided to acquiesce to the NIGC's findings and begin looking for ways to fix the casino.

They didn't know that securing money to build a new casino would be such a long, drawn-out process, she said. The NIGC agreed to several time extensions as the tribe struggled to find the needed financing.

In fall 2009, the ACE board met with representatives of the Shakopee Tribe to discuss how the two tribes might work together. The Minnesota Sioux tribe, with a reservation in southern Minnesota, owns and operates several enterprises, including the Mystic Lake and Little Six casinos near the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.

In December, the Shakopee agreed to give the Crow Tribe a $1 million grant and $2.5 million loan toward construction of a new casino. The loan amount has been increased to $3 million.

Whiteman Runs Him told lawmakers the terms of the loan, including a 6.5 percent interest rate and a 15-year repayment schedule. None of the conventional loans the tribe looked at offered less than an 8 percent interest rate, she said.

Leonard Bends, chairman of the ACE board, called the loan a "tribe-to-tribe transaction." The tribe could not have that kind of relationship with any other commercial lender, Bends said.

After relatively little discussion, the legislators voted 14-0, with one abstention, to agree to the terms of the loan.

Following the vote, Bends told lawmakers it had been a long few months working on the financing and he thanked them for their support.

"We will do the best we can to make this a facility that you are very proud of," he said.

Contact Susan Olp at solp@billingsgazette.com or 657-1281.

 

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