ND tribes’ $115 million bet on Las Vegas land sparks controversy

What happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas for the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. As word of the North Dakota tribes’ $115 million venture into real estate on the Las Vegas strip has spread, so have the questions and controversy surrounding it. Some tribal members have criticized not only the investment of tribal oil and gas revenues that could be put to use on the reservation but also the process behind the venture in a detailed report by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Cattle rancher Todd Hall was standing on land near the Las Vegas Strip, surveying real estate his tribal government had purchased more than 1,000 miles from their reservation.

The Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation spent $115 million for land along Las Vegas Boulevard over the past three years without concrete plans for the sites or public votes on most of the spending. Hall and other critics say the tribal government has lacked transparency, and they contend there are plenty of needs — and other ways to spend the money — back home in North Dakota.

“I’m not against business, but to buy land with no plan doesn’t make sense to me,” Hall said in April during a visit to Las Vegas to protest his leaders’ actions and see what the tribes bought.

The tribes, also known as the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, quietly began buying up land on the infamous strip three years ago, accumulating 23 acres for a potential development.

MHA Nation’s governing body, the Tribal Business Council, regularly votes on real estate deals and other expenditures. But the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s inspection of council minutes and other tribal documents posted online since 2020 found no public votes or resolutions on two of its three real estate acquisitions along the Strip.

These include its nearly $93 million purchase last year of most of the former Route 91 Harvest festival site, the scene of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history in 2017.

It’s not clear what tribal leadership ultimately intends to do with the real estate. But MHA Nation Chairman Mark Fox shrugs off criticism of his Vegas venture and appears confident the bet will pay off in the long run for the reservation’s 7,500 residents.

After every purchase in Las Vegas, Fox said tribal leaders did not have concrete plans for the real estate. But he previously said their options include developing a casino-resort or flipping the land to new owners.

In his statement for this story, Fox said the investment in Las Vegas is a sound one, and as property values keep rising, the Tribal Business Council can reinvest the profits “back into the welfare and sovereignty of our people.”

He also said tribal leaders have “not committed to any specific project plan yet, but intend to do so in the near future when the time is right.”

The Three Affiliated Tribes has operated a casino on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation for years. The venture in Las Vegas comes amidst an upswing in activity on the strip by other tribes from across the country, according to the Nevada Independent.

The gaming arm of Connecticut’s Mohegan Indian Tribe has been operating the casino at the off-Strip Virgin Hotels Las Vegas since March. In May, Southern California’s San Manuel Indian Tribe said it was acquiring the off-Strip Palms Casino Resort for $650 million from Red Rock Resorts.

Also, Florida’s Seminole Indian Tribe controls the name and trademarks for Hard Rock Las Vegas and has been actively looking at potential acquisition prospects along the Strip.

Yet even if the tribes hit the jackpot in Vegas, the problems closer to home keep piling up, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in gas and oil tax revenue generated by deposits on the reservation in recent years.

Energy development brought economic opportunities to Fort Berthold but also overwhelmed its transportation infrastructure and strained law enforcement and health care facilities, Tribal Business Council member Monica Mayer said in written testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019…

The tribes had an “immediate need for about $825 million for paved road construction and about $685 million to maintain and resurface those roads,” and an “immediate need of $270 million for housing and $160 million for housing related infrastructure,” she wrote.

They also needed $10 million for their drug enforcement agency and $75 million for social services and public safety, according to Mayer.