Michigan Governor Rejects Tribal Casino, Blames Feds for Inflexibility

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said “uncertainty” over DOI considering federal recognition of another tribe forced her to reject plans by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians to build a casino in Fruitport.
Michigan Governor Rejects Tribal Casino, Blames Feds for Inflexibility
June 17, 2022

Despite my best efforts to get answers … I am left without information critical to my decisionMichigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said inflexibility on the part of federal officials forced her to reject plans for an off-reservation tribal casino in the western part of the state.

Whitmer, a Democrat, was facing a June 16 deadline to approve plans by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians to build the Lakeshore Casino Resort on the site of the former Great Lakes Downs horse racetrack in Fruitport Township. The tribe had taken ownership of the land in 2008, one year after the racetrack was demolished.

But those plans were made more complicated as another tribe, the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, inches forward with its quest for federal recognition – a process that began in 1994. The Department of Interior (DOI) has not yet issued a proposed finding on the Grand River Bands’ petition, and is unlikely to issue one until the fall.

The governor initially had a December 16, 2021, deadline to make a decision on Lakeside, but DOI granted her a six-month extension. But Whitmer said DOI declined her requests for another six-month extension and for the federal agency to issue a proposed finding on Grand River Bands’ petition by June 1.

An “Impossible Position”

In a statement Wednesday, Whitmer complained that DOI had placed her “in an impossible position” that gave her no choice but to reject Lakeside.

“Should the Grand River Bands obtain federal recognition, they may wish to open a gaming facility of their own in the same general area as the Little River Band’s proposed project,” the governor said. “Despite my best efforts to get answers from DOI with respect to the pending Grand River Bands’ acknowledgement petition, I am left without information critical to my decision on the Little River Band’s [proposal].”

Whitmer added that the Grand River Bands’ petition created “remaining uncertainty.”

Tribes Issue Disparate Reactions

In a statement, the leader of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians said the tribe was “absolutely devastated” by Whitmer’s decision, considering the project would have supported 3,000 jobs. Tribal Ogema Larry Romanelli added that for the last 12 years, Lakeshore had the support of Whitmer’s two predecessors in Lansing – former Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm and former Republican Governor Rick Snyder – as well the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations, the DOI, and DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

“We met all the criteria required for approval,” Romanelli said. “While we disagree completely with Governor Whitmer’s decision, we respect she has the authority to make it.”

But some Michigan tribes – and, for that matter, operators of all three commercial casinos in Detroit – were opposed to Lakeside, largely on fears that a new casino in Muskegon would impact their facilities. The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, which owns and operates FireKeepers Casino Hotel in Battle Creek, applauded Whitmer for her decision.

“We appreciate Governor Whitmer’s thoughtful deliberation on this issue,” Jamie Stuck, chairman of the tribal government of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, told WZZM-TV in Grand Rapids. “While we believed the application did not comply with the negotiated Indian Gaming compacts, the governor did a very extensive and comprehensive review of the issue.

“[Whitmer] realizes that the request to approve this off-reservation casino would have violated the gaming compacts signed by all of the tribes in Michigan. Her decision maintains the cooperation and balance among the Michigan tribes.”

Ron Yob, chairman of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, concurred. “We applaud Governor Whitmer for her thoughtfulness and for doing the appropriate due diligence to make this important decision,” he said. “With this decision now made, the Grand River Bands will finalize our federal recognition with the potential of pursuing economic development activities in the Muskegon area.” Yob said the tribe expects DOI to announce a decision on federal recognition by October 15.

In a separate interview with WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, Romanelli said federal recognition of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians should have had no bearing on his tribe’s plans to build Lakeside. “The two are absolutely separate [issues],” he said, adding that having one issue impact the other “just doesn’t make sense.”

Decision Might Not Be Final Word on Lakeside

Despite Whitmer’s decision, there were obvious signs that it will not be the end of the debate over the proposed casino. Some of that sentiment came from the governor herself.

“Once DOI has acted on the Grand River Bands’ acknowledgement petition, I would welcome the opportunity to revisit this question and ask that you find a way for me to do so,” Whitmer told the agency. She also gave a nod to the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians for investing time and money into its proposal, for following the law, and for obtaining “the support of many stakeholders.”

It is possible that DOI could ultimately reject the Grand River Bands’ request for federal recognition, potentially opening the door for Lakeside again. If the Grand River Bands is recognized, it is unclear if they plan to open their own casino and if such plans would impact Lakeside. The uncertainty means there could be one, two, or zero new tribal casinos added in the Muskegon area.

Romanelli also hinted that the saga wasn’t over – his initial statement said the project had concluded “for now.”

If you or someone you know has a gambling problem and wants help, call the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling (VACPG) helpline at 1-888-532-3500

Keep reading: