- By Kate Carlson, MiBiz
- Economic Development
WAYLAND TWP., Mich. — The Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, or Gun Lake Tribe, plans to transform hundreds of acres of property north of Gun Lake Casino into a massive development that could include retail, health care, housing and manufacturing.
The tribe for years has been acquiring property north of the casino on the east side of U.S. 131 in Allegan County to secure it for possible future development. Monica King, CEO of Gun Lake Investments, the tribe’s non-gaming investment arm, said the tribe has secured about a 2.75-mile stretch of highway frontage spanning approximately 1,200 acres.
Now Gun Lake Investments is launching a six-month planning phase to prioritize various uses and where they will be located.
“The planning phase will really be about figuring out what are our constraints and opportunities, and what we can target first,” King said. “This is really a 25-year-plus project and will be such a huge project. We really do need to make sure we get everyone involved. … Twelve-hundred acres is so significant and it will be its own ecosystem. We do have a couple of projects (in the development) that we want to fast track and that we hope to break ground on next year.”
Parts of the development could complement the tribe’s growing casino operations, including a new 15-story hotel, but the new project will not involve gaming, King said. Conceptually, the tribe hopes to use the development to help draw more families to the area, she added.
“We really want to make that corridor a destination,” said King, noting it was too early in the process to provide cost estimates for the project.
Currently, the casino property and a nearly 140-acre parcel immediately north of 130th Avenue are held in trust by the federal government for the tribe as part of its reservation. Gun Lake Tribe holds the title to the other parcels it owns in the corridor, but will petition the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs in the future to take as much of the land as possible into trust, King said. She also expects that some projects may take place on non-trust lands the tribe owns.
The federal process for a tribe to transfer land it owns into trust could take about six months to a year, said Fred Schubkegel, a partner in the Kalamazoo office of Varnum LLP whose practice areas include American Indian law. Converting the property into federal trust lands would unlock many tribal sovereign advantages, especially for non-gaming developments.
For example, businesses that operate on trust land do not pay local or state property taxes or personal property taxes. The projects on trust land would need only to follow tribal zoning, rather than any local or state regulations.
“If there is a business that is otherwise regulated by the state, they would just need to negotiate with the tribe,” Schubkegel said. “To an extent, a tribe can make anything happen that it wants to happen. You’ve got one unit of government.”
Having one government serve as the authority on zoning and oversight is a beneficial development tool that can speed up the process, he said, noting that businesses that are normally regulated by multiple bodies would only need to negotiate with the tribe on trust land.
Across Michigan, tribes have flexed sovereignty over trust lands to attract investments in various industries. For example, after the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians legalized the sale of cannabis, both tribes worked with Lume Cannabis Co. to open dispensaries on their trust lands. Tribal sovereignty offered the company a way to open Northern Michigan stores even though surrounding municipalities in both cases did not permit recreational sales, according to a prior report.
“Tribes are definitely getting into (non-gaming development) more because they know they need to diversify, and most of them are long-play holders,” Schubkegel said. “They want to hold for seven generations. This is their home and they feel a real fiduciary responsibility.”
To create a development plan for the corridor, GLI is partnering with St. Charles, Ill.-based WBK Engineering, a civil engineering and planning consulting firm owned by Mno-Bmadsen, the non-gaming investment arm of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi that also has an office in Battle Creek.
GLI plans to work with other tribal organizations “wherever possible” throughout the development process, King said, noting that she likely expects to bring in outside development partners for parts of the project.
“We do plan to engage community partners along the way and the initial conversations have been very positive,” King said, noting the development team is still “working through” some of the funding scenarios for the project.
Lakeshore Advantage Corp., the economic development organization that serves Ottawa and Allegan counties in West Michigan, has worked with several members of the tribe’s development team regarding planning for the corridor development project.
The sheer amount of land controlled by GLI and its strategic location from a shipping and logistics perspective are a “very rare thing to have,” said Lakeshore Advantage President Jennifer Owens.
“We stand by, ready to be a resource with them,” Owens said.
Notably, Gun Lake Tribe wants to accommodate industrial uses in the corridor, with special attention to uses that West Michigan has not been able to support in recent years because of site limitations and the high demand for quality manufacturing space.
“Industrial developments, specifically between 100,000 and 200,000 square feet, are things we can’t regularly meet for new or existing companies looking to expand,” Owens said. “There is also a need for warehousing and logistics space. The cold storage warehousing space is also completely filled — that’s another demand.”
The tribe also is “going above and beyond” to invest in the infrastructure along the corridor, as evidenced by recent transportation improvements, Owens added.
For example, the tribe collaborated with the Michigan Department of Transportation and local governments to replace a U.S. 131 overpass at 129th Avenue in Wayland Township, near the casino. Gun Lake Tribe invested $20.7 million to expedite the construction of the bridge, which had an overall $23.7 million price tag.
Construction crews completed the project last month. The new overpass replaced an aging double-lane bridge that was often at capacity during peak hours at the casino. The new bridge is able to accommodate upwards of 35,000 vehicles per day, which is more than double the capacity of the previous interchange.
‘Thinking generations ahead’
One hurdle to developing property for an industrial use is finding land with utilities like electrical, water and sewer. To that end, the tribe is in the process of working with the city of Wayland to secure utilities for the corridor, King said.
Gun Lake Tribe has also successfully sought out $1.5 million in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration for infrastructure investments for the corridor project. King said the tribe plans to identify other federal grant programs where applicable to further advance the project.
Those funding opportunities have been more plentiful recently. Particularly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has flooded Indian County with billions of dollars in funding opportunities ranging from broadband connectivity and infrastructure to planning for economic development and climate resilience.
“There is a lot of federal funding available that is directed to public infrastructure like roads, sewer and environmental stabilization,” Schubkegel said. “To the point where tribes can bundle that support, it gives them access to a resource that a local government might not have.”
Gun Lake Tribe Chairman Bob Peters said the next steps in the planning process will include determining the look and feel of the development, which will draw in part from a pattern book that the tribe has developed over the years.
“A lot of it is tied to our culture and came from speaking to our membership, and will include native plants, native languages and architecture,” Peters said. “It is still a work in progress. We’re anxious and excited to see how everything comes together.”
Even though the project is a non-gaming endeavor, Peters also cites “a number of synergies” with Gun Lake Casino, which is in the middle of its own $300 million expansion. Announced in April 2021, the expansion includes the addition of a 15-story, 220-room resort hotel with an enclosed glass-domed pool and entertainment space. The tribe expects the expansion to open in mid 2025.
“We’re constantly thinking generations ahead,” Peters said. “We’re exercising our sovereignty wherever we can.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally appeared in regional business publication MiBiz and is republished with permission.