North Tartan group’s gambling license reviewed in Oakdale

Laurie Meyers helps sell pull-tab tickets for a dollar a chance at Oakies Roadhouse Grill in Oakdale several nights a week. The proceeds of the small gambling operation benefit the North Tartan Area Girls Basketball Booster Club, an elite off-season athletic program that has been around since her father, Bob Meyers, began it 16 years ago.
But lately, the group, which assembles several teams of girls ages 10-17 for spring and summer competition, has come under the scrutiny of the Oakdale City Council. Specifically, the council questioned the validity of the pull-tab gambling element in three recent workshops and at its Dec. 13 meeting when it considered the group’s license for renewal.
The problem, according to a council member who raised the issue after it was brought to his attention by other residents, is that the North Tartan program attracts 50 athletes every year, but in recent years, fewer than 10 of those have actually been from Oakdale.
“Our ordinance says the (gambling) proceeds should be used for local benefit,” said Council member Stan Karwoski, who cast the only opposing vote on Dec. 13 on renewal of the North Tartan license for one year. “My issue is that they’re not meeting the ordinance.”
Though Karwoski was the lone voice of dissent on the issue, the council did opt to reduce the period of North Tartan’s renewal from two years to one in order to review the group’s progress in recruiting more local athletes and to keep tabs on its gambling intake (which totaled about $52,000 between January and August of this year).
New program director and Tartan High girls head coach Bill Larson aims to improve those areas since taking the reins of the booster club nine months ago after Bob Meyers retired and relocated to Wisconsin. Larson, who has previously served as a team coach for the program, persuaded most of the council that he intends to build the local membership in his club as well as make its financial records (which had been kept somewhat private, some council members argued) more transparent.
“The biggest emphasis that I need to look at is the number of players from the city,” Larson said of the program, whose alumni include players from all over the metro area and even as far as Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota. “It’s a big issue and I’m glad (the council) raised it. We want to open this up to our youth in Oakdale.”

Dunking dollars
Larson provided the council with a breakdown of the North Tartan expenditures and costs, which include a $1,500 salary for each coach, $100 per uniform, tournament fees ranging from $325 to $795 and membership fees to the Amateur Athletic Union, a national junior sports organization and sponsor.
Though North Tartan collects close to $400 from each athlete to help offset equipment, coaching and traveling fees (each team play in six to eight tournaments every season), the fees can’t cover the estimated $50,400 operating cost each year.
Larson could skimp in some areas, like coaching salaries, but said he wanted to keep attracting a quality coaching staff for the teams.
“A lot of times (in other organizations) you have 21- or 22-year-old coaches,” said the 13-year coaching veteran who was named Coach of the Year in 2000 and 2002. “I don’t think there’s a good learning process there. We want to get good coaches and committed people.”
For Karwoski, part of the concern comes from the elite nature of Larson’s program, which the council member labeled a “scholarship combine” for student athletes hoping to attract the attention of high schools and colleges around the country (a component Larson readily acknowledges). Karwoski, who has long been involved in the Oakdale Athletic Association, said he would like to see less focus on traveling and more on local interests when it came to allocating the profits of the pull-tab gambling.
“We have 2,000 families in OAA with basketball needs who aren’t getting any benefit,” he said. “Why doesn’t Bill contribute the money there?”
According to Laurie Meyers, it was the institution of organizations like the Oakdale and North St. Paul Athletic Associations that forced the North Tartan club to expand its recruitment reach in order to stay alive. Incidentally, Karwoski also questioned the use of the name North Tartan when the group included no athletes “north of Highway 5” this past season; Meyers said the name has carried over since the group’s past affiliation with the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District 622.
But Karwoski’s main gripe continues to be the perception that the money residents spend on pull-tabs goes toward local athletes when only nine Oakdale girls were on the roster this past year.
“When residents go in and spend money on pull tabs, they want to be comfortable that the money is going locally,” he said in his dissenting opinion on Dec. 13. “This didn’t meet the bar.”
It’s a point that Larson does not dispute. He said he plans on checking in with the council about every three months with a financial progress report as well as how his efforts to recruit locally are faring.
“My number one main objective is to get our youth program really going throughout the city of Oakdale,” he said. “I want to get them in the program to give them opportunities they’ve never had before.”

On the rebound
It was Larson’s attitude and, as Council member Paul Reinke put it, his “newness” to leading the North Tartan program that convinced the remaining four members to renew the group’s gambling license.
“He’s been very involved the last couple of years in the community,” Council member Kent Dotas said of Larson after the meeting. “After talking with him, I’m very confident in his ability to really turn that league around and hit those benchmarks that we’re looking for in terms of participation and accountability for profits.”
The council also plans on holding itself more accountable in the future when it comes to granting gambling licenses for non-profit or private organizations like the North Tartan club. Dotas said he expected the council would review its ordinance on licenses and the requirements for local groups to obtain them.
“We did not watch this as closely as we should have. Some issues were raised and we started scrambling to find the history of their program,” Dotas said. “The council has to decide what level of oversight do we need to have over organizations in the future?”
Karwoski, while standing by his “no” vote, hopes Larson will continue to improve the program this next spring season.
“My vote against this gambling operation proceeding in its current shape is actually a positive vote for getting that money to the youth of Oakdale,” he said. “I want the bar raised immediately.”
So, while residents take their chances with dollar pull-tabs at Oakies, the City Council plans to take a chance on North Tartan Area Girls Basketball.

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