Michigan government rejects off-reserve tribal casino plan in Muskegon after federal deadline extension denied
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday denied a request by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians to build an off-reserve casino in Fruitport Township, Muskegon Countya project under discussion for almost 14 years old. Whitmer said she was put in an ‘impossible position’ by the US Department of the Interior, which this week refused a six-month extension to decide on the project.
In a letter to US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Whitmer said she was unable to support the Little River Band’s application because of the uncertainty created by another western Michigan tribe, the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians, which is seeking federal recognition from the Department of Interior. Should he get this recognition, the Grand River Band may wish to open their own casino in the same area as the Little River Band.
“The Department of the Interior must first decide whether to grant federal recognition to the neighboring bands of the Grand River of the Ottawa Indians. It is essential to have this information before making an informed decision. Without this information, I am unable to agree at this time and remain disappointed with the Department’s lack of flexibility in this process,” Whitmer said.
The lack of information, Wretchen explained, put her “in an impossible position.” “Despite my best efforts to obtain responses from the DOI regarding the Grand River Bands’ pending application for recognition, I am left without information critical to my decision on the two-part determination of the Little River Band,” it said. she declared.
Currently operating a casino in Manistee, Little River Band’s plans call for a $180 million development on the site of the former Great Lakes Down horse racing facility. The property would include a 149,000 square foot casino and a 220-room hotel on 60 acres in Fruitport Township. The governor’s decision was a blow to the Little River Tribe and Muskegon area officials who have defended the casino for years.
“I realize that this denial is disappointing to the Little River Band and local community supporters, and I appreciate the considerable time and investment that has gone into this proposal.. My commitment to creating well-paying jobs and economic development in Muskegon is unwavering, and I will stand with anyone,” Whitmer wrote.
Since the proposed casino was not on tribal land, it required federal and state approval. The U.S. Department of the Interior gave its approval to the Little River Tribe in December 2020, saying the casino would be “in the best interest of the tribe” and “would not be detrimental” to the community. The Little River Tribe says 42% of its members live in the Muskegon area.
Fruitport Township Supervisor Todd Dunham said the governor’s decision was “so discouraging” because the project had been under discussion for 14 years.. “It would have helped the whole west side here, everyone had these new developments and developers because of the possibility of this casino coming, and now it’s all gone.”
Meanwhile, Larry Romanelli, elected ogema of the Little River Band, said tribal members were “absolutely devastated” by Whitmer’s lack of endorsement.. “This project would have created and supported 3,000 jobs for tribal members and families in the community, while providing funds for health care and housing,” he said in a statement. “Words cannot express how grateful we are for the support of our community and how disappointed we feel for them.”
Even though the proposed casino was backed by broad local support, other Michigan casinos objected to off-booking gaming. Detroit City Council and the Wayne County Board of Commissioners last year issued resolutions opposing efforts to expand off-reserve gaming in the state.
The State House also approved a resolution in February 2021, opposing the expansion of off-reservation gaming that is not part of tribal, state, and U.S. Department of the Interior-approved gaming pacts.
The project was first discussed in 2008, when the tribe purchased the 87-acre Great Lakes Downs property. After the U.S. Department of the Interior gave the Little River Tribe its approval in 2020, Whitmer was given a year to come to terms with the decision. Whitmer received a six-month extension to make his decision in December 2021but was later denied a second extension, forcing him to make a final decision by June 16.
Whitmer, in her letter to Haaland, said she would “would welcome the opportunity to review” the Little River Band’s casino application once the Department of the Interior decided on the Grand River Band’s application for recognition.