Last June, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer rejected a proposal for an off-reservation casino by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Fruitport Township.
At the crux of Whitmer’s decision was a looming decision on federal recognition of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians by the US Department of Interior.
After a lengthy wait, the DOI rejected Grand River Bands recognition request, citing its failure to satisfy one of the seven mandatory criteria for acknowledgement.
Now, Little River Band wants to revisit their proposal for a new casino in Muskegon County.
“I have a call in to the governor to meet with her to see what her thoughts are now,” Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Tribal Ogema Larry Romanelli told PlayMichigan. “Throughout the last year, that’s been the holdup, waiting for the federal recognition. One shouldn’t really depend on the other, but I understand her point. But now the determination has been brought forward. I think that we’re pretty much ready to go in my mind anyway. I’m looking for the governor to approve the project.”
Little River rejected as Grand River Bands decision loomed
Little River Band, operators of Little River Casino Resort in Manistee, were originally approved for an off-reservation casino in Fruitport Township by the Department of Interior in late 2020.
The tribe then had to negotiate a new gaming compact with the state which Gov. Whitmer had to approve.
Last June, Whitmer rejected the tribe’s proposal as it neared deadline for a decision. Her rejection was driven by the upcoming decision from the DOI on Grand River Bands attempt to receive federal recognition.
Had Grand River Bands received recognition, they would be entitled to land in the vicinity of the proposed Fruitport Township casino. Whitmer felt she was in an “impossible position” to make a decision without that information.
Prior to the DOI’s decision on Grand River Bands, it actually encouraged Little River Band to resubmit its application for the new casino this past November.
Romanelli is seeking an indication from Gov. Whitmer that resubmitting to the DOI wouldn’t result in another defeat in the longterm.
“When she rejected that first package, it does give us a few more hoops to go through in that we have to resubmit another package. The Department of Interior has stated that it won’t be a lengthy process once we resubmit the package,” Romanelli said. “We have plans whenever the governor gives us a green light from the state to go ahead and resubmit.”
Grand River Bands has 180 days from the Feb. 23 decision to submit new evident to challenge the DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs proposed findings.
Little River Fruitport casino project first proposed in 2015
In 2008, Little River band purchased a portion of land in Fruitport Township with plans to turn it into an off-reservation casino.
The tribe first submitted an application for the project in 2015.
The nearly 87-acre plot of land where the casino would be located is just off I-96 on Harvey St.
At the time, it was a $180 million project that would take about two years to complete. The plans call for:
- 69,000 square feet of gaming floor space
- 1,700 slot machines
- 35 table games
- 220-room hotel
- Dining and entertainment space
- Event and meeting rooms
“This project still looks to produce 3,000-5,000 jobs if we resubmit and go through it. It also is no cost to the government, to the state. As a matter of fact, we would increase payments to the state once we get up and running,” Romanelli said. “We’ve asked for no state dollars, and it’s 3,000-5,000 jobs, realistically. So, I don’t see a downside to it.”
Romanelli projected about $12 million in annual state tax revenue to come from the casino once it’s operating. Little River Casino Resort in Manistee paid nearly $1.5 million to local government in 2022.
Fruitport Township and Muskegon County have been strongly in support of the casino proposal.
“We have had a lot of support here and continue to have a lot of support here,” Romanelli said of Muskegon County. “We have bipartisan political support, we have school support, we have union support, we have the local community, the businesses, everybody has been really, really supportive. It’s a big project for Western Michigan. They’re patiently waiting. I think it’d be devastating to their community if this didn’t happen.”
Clock is ticking for Little River Band’s proposed casino
Romanelli and the Little River Band find themselves waiting on Gov. Whitmer for the next move.
They have reached out for a meeting, but have not received a response from Whitmer as of this writing.
“My understanding is that it could be 3-6 months to for the process to happen again. If we could get a positive signal from the governor now, in about 3-6 months if we get approval, we could start doing the groundwork before the snow falls,” Romanelli said. “We could get a jump on it and get things going as soon as possible. That’d be our intentions.”
Gov. Whitmer’s office didn’t respond to our request for an update on the Fruitport Township casino.
Romanelli said the tribe can’t afford to wait much longer to begin the project, as its becoming too costly.
“Even if this drags out another year. It won’t happen,” Romanelli said. “We can’t continue to spend more money and keep this thing going. It just won’t happen. So, something should happen positively, and reasonably soon.”
Despite feeling like the clock is ticking, Romanelli still feels optimistic that the casino will get built.
“I’m very positive about this. I don’t see the downside. I don’t see a reason for it to not get approval to move forward, I just don’t see it,” he said. “So, I’m hanging in there. Yes, it would be devastating, absolutely devastating, if it didn’t happen. Historically, I believe it would be shown as the wrong move if it doesn’t go forward. We did everything right. We’re still doing everything right. It’s just a matter of, again, what the governor decides.”
Photo courtesy of US Department of the Interior, LRBOI