- By Chez Oxendine
Michigan legislators passed a resolution against “unchecked proliferation of off reservation gaming” last week that could imperil a proposed tribal casino in Muskegon County.
The resolution, introduced by Republican State Rep. Roger Hauck, opposes attempts to build casinos outside of the original gaming compacts established between tribes and the state of Michigan.
The casino in question would be the second within for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. The new $180 million project aims to build a 69,000-square-foot casino and 220-room hotel in the Fruitport Township in Muskegon County, using property that was once the Great Lake Downs racetrack.
The tribe’s second casino requires federal and state approvals, including amending its existing state gaming compact. The existing compact authorizes the tribe to operate one Class III gaming facility on trust lands near Manistee.
The state House resolution asks Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, to oppose any attempts to build off-reservation casinos that do not align with existing tribal compacts. The resolution represents the latest potential snag in a long road to the project’s approval after its inception in 2008, when the Little River Band first purchased the former horse racing facility.
Despite the resolution, the tribe remains undeterred in its pursuit of the project.
Tribal spokesman Tom Shields called the resolution “non-binding” and said the tribe is optimistic that Whitmer will approve the gaming compact amendment.
“The decision is in the governor’s hands. It’s solely up to her to approve the two-part determination process,” Shields told Tribal Business News. “The tribe is moving forward. We have great optimism that the governor will take a look at the economic benefits, the fact that it’s 3,000 jobs for the Muskegon area, and make the right decision.”
Shields also contested the off-reservation classification, stating that the largest population of Little River Band tribal members lived in the Muskegon area, which is 95 miles south of the tribe’s existing Little River Casino Resort near Manistee.
Bobby Leddy of Whitmer’s communications team said in an email to Tribal Business News that the governor’s office was reviewing the resolution and offered no further comment.
The proposal cleared its most recent major hurdle in December when the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved a Record of Decision to take the Great Lake Downs land into trust, according to a post from Larry Romanelli, the ogema or elected leader of the Little River Band.
Romanelli wrote that the Muskegon-area casino would “over double our yearly revenue and increase the services we can provide for our membership.”
Should the casino eventually reach approval, the project would generate an estimated $50 million in revenue for the tribe, alongside $15 million in state tax revenues for Michigian, according to Shields.
“It helps provide for the tribe in the Muskegon area,” Shields said. “It will provide jobs for the tribal members in the area and it would provide revenues to tribal members.”
Little River Band of Ottawa Indians’ proposal also faces opposition from three tribes — the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi (Gun Lake Tribe), the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe — who operate existing casinos within a two-hour drive of the proposed Fruitport Township location.
James Nye, a spokesman for the three tribes, said the groups opposed Little River Band’s project on both federal and state grounds, noting the tribe lacks reservation land in the Muskegon area and that adding a second casino “is not permitted under their gaming compact.”
Nye also added that for any one tribe to open a second, off-reservation establishment, it would require written consent from all other tribes in the area.
“The House of Representatives simply is upholding and wants all tribes to adhere to the regulatory requirements found within the compacts,” Nye said.