What a year, eh? The RiverTown newsroom looked back on 2020 to compile lists of the most important news and sports stories covered by the Star-Observer and Republican Eagle. Check back to Top 10 Stories of 2020 over the next few days to see what made the cut.

Treasure Island Casino & Resort and the Prairie Island Indian Community, like everyone else in the world, have been affected by the global pandemic, but the proactive steps taken by the leadership team at the resort and by the tribal council have helped to minimize the negative effects.

“Even before the first reported case was in Minnesota, we had already implemented our emergency response team,” said Shelley Buck, tribal council president. “It was a hectic few weeks there, but we wanted to take this thing seriously. We had a lot of tough decisions ahead of us, but the response team was formulated and put in place early.”

The casino is the primary funding source for the Prairie Island Indian Community and its many employees who live around the region. The decision to shut down the casino weighed heavily on Buck and the tribal council because the Prairie Island Indian Community doesn’t have a tax base like local, state and federal governments, but Prairie Island still had expenses for services they needed to provide to tribal members.

"When you think about what the casino is," said Rayanna Lennes, communications manager, "the casino funds essentially an entire city. It’s education. It’s health care. It’s a police department. It's so much more than just a casino."

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Every other slot machine is shut down and seats have been removed to help guests maintain social distancing. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
Every other slot machine is shut down and seats have been removed to help guests maintain social distancing. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

Initially, it looked like the casino might need to close for two weeks, but in the end, it closed on March 17 and could not reopen until June 1.

“Before we even began to invite guests back to the property, there were stages we needed to go through, following a lot of guidance," said Dan Johnson, director of security. "We did research into best practices and created some of our own best practices that we thought might serve the community."

While few people in the world planned for a global epidemic, the management team at Treasure Island had looked at other possible tragedies such as flooding, a nuclear disaster, or an accident involving the railroad that might block access to and from the island.

“Over the years, we’ve had a history of being proactive in a hazards approach,” said Dan Johnson, director of security. “Businesses like ours need to look at what are the plausible scenarios that you really have to plan for, and as you see an emerging threat, can you take something off the shelf that is most relevant and apply it?”

Reopening meant going through the building to check all the pipes, pumps, heating and air conditioning, and other systems. It meant changing the valet parking, the check-in process, the cleaning protocols, and adding thermal scanning machines at the entrances.

“It was a complete transformation of the way we do business,” said Mike Heavner, director of finances and interim general manager. “Every division had to do their research and come up with the changes they needed to make.”

Treasure Island Casino & Resort reopened at 50% capacity and has remained open. The added restrictions from the state in November were a reminder that the pandemic is still raging.

“We want to make sure that we’re doing our part to make sure people are wearing masks and following the policies we have set in place for both employees and guests,” Buck said. “On the tribal side, we’re just continuing to monitor things, and we are getting ready for vaccination.”

While the closing caused many problems, Buck said some good did come from it. Community members set up online classes in the Dakota language, ribbon-skirt making, beading and other traditional skills.

"I'm sure my ancestors never imagined doing things this way, but it is pretty neat that we are able to continue those old ways in new formats," Buck said.

The swimming pool and other recreational areas that were not safe for guests remained closed after the casino reopened. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
The swimming pool and other recreational areas that were not safe for guests remained closed after the casino reopened. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

Losing the revenue from the casino has long been a fear for the community living on an island in the Mississippi River, because of three threats -- severe flooding, a nuclear disaster or a railroad accident.

“The fear of something happening to the casino has been something that we have lived with every day because of 'The Trifecta,'” Tribal Council President Shelley Buck said. “Our fear became a reality when we had to shut down the casino. In a way, it has helped us see areas in which we can improve.”

One improvement moved forward when Gov. Walz signed a bonding bill on Oct. 21 which included $10 million marked for an overpass to eliminate the problems caused by multiple trains every day shutting down the only highway into Prairie Island. That money will be combined with $14.7 million the City of Red Wing received for the project in 2017.

Buck said a start date for building the overpass hasn’t been established yet, but a meeting with the City of Red Wing, who is in charge of the project, is scheduled to discuss a timeline.”

The Minnesota state legislature also granted the Prairie Island Indian Community $46.2 million to launch a Net-Zero Project which would help create an energy system for the tribe that would result in zero emissions by increasing the use of renewable energy throughout the community.

“The Net-Zero Project is a transformation opportunity for our tribe,” Buck said. “We can reshape our energy future. For too long, our tribe has been burdened by the negative impact of energy production, specifically nuclear power and nuclear waste. This legislation gives us the power to change that narrative and use energy production as a force for good.”

The community is looking for a partner on the Net-Zero Project and has issued a request for proposals which can be read at http://prairieisland.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Prairie-Island-Net-Zero-Project-RFP-Final-9.8.20.pdf

Like other groups and organizations during the COVID crisis, the Prairie Island Indian Community has faced challenges during 2020. Buck said the experience has proven how strong the community is and members' efforts have brought them closer together.

“We are taking the lessons that we have learned from this,” she said, “and we will continue to use those and build upon those lessons and grow our capacity more, especially living with the trifecta that we live with every day. We will take these lessons and use them for future issues that come up.”