Michigan Tribe Looking to Build Muskegon Casino Stuck “In a Holding Pattern,” Awaiting Gov.'s Approval

The leader of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians is optimistic that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will ultimately sign off on their casino proposal.
Michigan Tribe Looking to Build Muskegon Casino Stuck "In a Holding Pattern," Awaiting Gov.'s Approval
January 12, 2022

The leader of a tribe hoping to build a casino in western Michigan said the Tribe is “in a holding pattern” as they wait for approval from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, but disclosed that the Tribe was also still actively doing “preliminary work” of an undisclosed nature for the $180 million casino project.

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians wants to build the Lakeshore Casino Resort on the site of the former Great Lakes Downs horse racetrack in Fruitport Township, which is in Muskegon County. The track closed in 2007 and was demolished in 2008, the same year the tribe took ownership.

The tribe’s proposal includes building a 400,000 square-foot facility, of which 140,000 square feet would be used for a casino. Approximately 1,700 slot machines and 35 table games would be included on the gaming floor. Lakeshore would also include a 220-room hotel and a multi-use facility.

Trump DOI Approved Casino Plans

In December 2020, during the closing months of the Trump administration, the US Department of the Interior (DOI) issued a secretarial determination in support of the tribe’s casino plans.

“We have completed our review of the Tribe’s application and determined that the proposed gaming establishment at the site would be in the best interest of the tribe and its members and would not be detrimental to the surrounding community,” wrote Tara Sweeney, then-Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs.

The Trump DOI issued a secretarial determination because the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) has prohibited most gaming activities acquired in trust by the federal government on behalf of a tribe since October 1988 — with a few exceptions. One is through the issuance of a secretarial determination, but the governor of the state where the proposed gaming would take place must also agree with the DOI’s assessment that a casino would be in a tribe’s best interest and would not hurt the local community.

Under the statute, Whitmer had one year to decide whether or not to allow the casino to move forward. But the statute also allowed either Whitmer or the tribe to request a 180-day extension. The Democratic governor ultimately decided to wait until June 2022 to make her decision.

Some “Preliminary Work” Being Done

Despite the delay, Tribal Ogema Larry Romanelli told Michigan Gaming Review that the tribe “is actually in a good spot. The only thing is timing.

“Obviously, we would have liked to have avoided the extension, but that’s OK. Things are still looking good, by all indications.”

Romanelli later disclosed that the tribe was “already doing some preliminary work” but declined to elaborate, citing the sensitive nature of the tribe’s proposal.

“We’re going to have to bust tail to make sure that we can stay with the program [to build the casino] once the thing is signed. That’s kind of where we’re at. We’re in a holding pattern.”

The tribal leader also declined to say whether or not discussions had been held on opening a sportsbook at Lakeshore.

Other Tribes Allege Approval Was Political Move

The sensitive nature of the proposal is rooted in the fact that some other Michigan tribes — as well as the three Detroit casinos — are opposed to Whitmer giving Lakeshore the green light.

Last June, the leaders of three Michigan tribes — the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, and the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi — sent a letter to the Biden DOI’s inspector general alleging the Trump DOI gave its blessing to the project in order to create a political headache for Whitmer, according to The Detroit News.

The aforementioned tribes own and operate Gun Lake Casino in Wayland, Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort in Mount Pleasant, and FireKeepers Casino Hotel in Battle Creek, respectively.

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians also owns the Little River Casino in Manistee, which opened in 1999. The tribe and the State of Michigan had a Class III gaming compact, which would have to be amended if Whitmer signs on to Lakeshore. The tribe also runs a retail sportsbook, the River Rock Sportsbook & Grill, from Little River.

“Again, we had hoped it would have been signed back in December,” Romanelli said. “There’s a big difference between December and June when you’re talking about construction, underground work, and preliminary stuff. It changes a lot. So, we had to regroup, refocus, and go from there. We’re getting toward the end of a 12-and-a-half-year project, so we’re excited and cautious at the same time.”

Bob Lukens, Director of Visit Muskegon, the county’s convention and visitors bureau, also struck an optimistic tone.

“We understand the governor and her team needed additional time to review the issue, and we trust she will ultimately approve the Little River Band’s request to build their casino in Muskegon County,” Lukens told Michigan Gaming Review .

“Muskegon County has been a proponent of this casino’s development from the beginning and the county greatly anticipates the thousands of jobs the casino will provide residents. The casino will also give visitors to Muskegon additional entertainment options and improve our appeal as a visitor destination.”

The Interior estimated that gross gaming revenue from Lakeshore would reach $189 million annually by its fifth year in operation. The department also estimated that the casino would draw about 2.36 million gaming visits during its first year in operation, increasing to 2.42 million in year five.

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