Tribe responds to concerns over its plans for the Elk Run site
The leader of Prairie Island Indian Community said this week that their goal is to work in partnership — not compete — with the City of Rochester as it moves forward with plans to develop the nearby Elk Run site.
Shelley Buck, the tribe’s president, made the comments to Med City Beat following Monday’s meeting of the Rochester City Council. During that meeting, Council Members Michael Wojcik and Shaun Palmer raised concerns about the lack of information given to the city regarding the tribe’s plans for the site, which is situated in neighboring Pine Island.
Buck said she wishes she could have attended the meeting, but only found out hours before the meeting that the topic was on the council agenda. After watching the discussion on video, Buck said she believes there is “a lot of misunderstanding” about what Prairie Island wants to do with the site.
“We are trying to help them, and not compete with them,” Buck said in a phone interview. “I don’t know where they have gotten that idea. But I am excited to talk with them about it.”
At play on Monday was whether the city should adopt a resolution in support of a petition before Congress that would recognize the Pine Island site as tribal land. In late 2018, the Prairie Island Indian Community spent $15.5 million to purchase two-thirds of the nearly 2,000-acre Elk Run site, which had been previously been pitched as a bioscience business park.
As of now, Buck said there are no plans set in place. The only thing that is certain, she said, is that the property will be used for housing.
“Our usable land is pretty much maxed out right now,” she said of the tribe’s existing reservation along the Mississippi River.
Asked about whether the tribe would consider others kinds of development beyond housing, Buck said that remains a strong possibility.
“Some of that land is prime location for economic development,” she said. “But there is nothing concrete, set in stone on what it will be.”
At this week’s council meeting, Wojcik urged the city to carefully consider how such development could impact established local businesses. He said Prairie Island’s use of the land — located just a few miles north of Rochester on Highway 52 — could create “insurmountable competitive disadvantages to the community.”
“Because they are a sovereign nation, policies that apply to the city of Rochester do no necessarily apply to land that they may have,” said Wojcik.
He added: “Let’s say you have a business that is competing in the marketplace paying taxes. You have the potential to have somebody who’s not paying those same taxes in the market competing with you. That is a possible outcome of this.”
Palmer joined Wojcik in suggesting that more info be brought forward about what may or may not happen at the site before voting on the resolution. (It should be noted that while the tribe is seeking Rochester’s support, it does not need the city to sign off on the resolution to move forward.)
“I think being a good neighbor is a two-way street, and I think they need to tell us what they are going to do,” said Palmer.
Buck, who previously met with Mayor Kim Norton and Council President Randy Staver, said she was open to continuing the dialogue with the city. Buck has also met with leaders from Pine Island, Oronoco, Olmsted County (which recently adopted a similar resolution), and Mayo Clinic.
However, Buck lamented comments made regarding whether a casino might be built on the site. Praire Island owns and operates Treasure Island Resort & Casino on tribal land near Red Wing.
While she has no ability to foresee how future tribal councils may act, she said at this time there are no plans for a casino in Olmsted County.
“I can say that this [tribal] council right now, we’re concentrating on housing, not casinos,” said Buck, noting that the tribe has already invested a great deal of money into Treasure Island.
Why the need for new land?
Buck said the Prairie Island Indian Community had been looking for years for new land, but it was difficult to find anything that was both continuous and close enough to the existing reservation.
With the Elk Run site, they were able to check both boxes. Not only that, but according to Buck, the land in Pine Island also holds historical significance.
"We have historical records that show Chief Red Wing, which is one of the chiefs of our tribe, encamped there at different times,” she said.
Right now, the tribe is facing a trifecta of issues with its current land, according to Buck.
First, they are running out of real estate. In the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a dam, causing half of their land to flood. Some of it remains underwater. Other parts are prone to regular flooding.
Second, in the late 1960s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs licensed land nearby for a nuclear power plant. Today, there are several dozen dry cast storage units of nuclear fuel located within 600 yards from residential areas.
And finally, there is only one reliable road on and off the island — and that road is blocked multiple times throughout the day by trains. Those trains, she said, are becoming longer and more frequent.
“For the health and well-being of our tribe, and the future of our tribe, we need land elsewhere,” Buck told us.
The tribe is now planning to take a land settlement claim before Congress, arguing that it should be reimbursed for the land lost due to Lock and Dam Number Three. Buck said they are not asking the government to compensate them for the cost to acquire the site; they are just seeking the same legal status for the land they lost.
The Prairie Island Indian Community is home to 1,031 residents, a number that is expected to grow in the coming years. As of now, there are 150 members who are on a wait list for housing.
“We just don’t have the space for them,” said Buck. “And we want to make sure our members have a place to live who want to come back here.”
Sean Baker is a Rochester journalist and the founder of Med City Beat.