Casino Revenue Bounce Back Crucial For Michigan Tribal Communities

Written By Drew Ellis on April 27, 2023
Tribal casino revenue vital for community services

Everyone can relate to relying on a job for vital everyday needs like housing and medicine.

For Michigan tribal casinos, they supply those needs for entire communities.

Each year, tribal casino revenue covers the needs and services of entire tribes, which can be thousands of people.

Tribal casinos also supply important financial support for schools and emergency services throughout their local communities.

After struggling to produce revenue during the pandemic, tribal gaming has returned to pre-pandemic revenue levels, a vital step in the state’s gaming industry.

Tribal casino revenue provides for majority of tribal services

In 1988, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in the United States. That allowed tribes to conduct full-scale casino operations on reservations in states that approved gambling.

Though tribal casinos aren’t required to pay the same taxes as non-tribal casinos, tribes were still required to reach a compact with the state.

The tribal compact with the state sees the tribes pay a share of their casino revenue in order to operate. Those payments aid a number of local entities in the tribal communities. Each tribe that operates casinos in Michigan has their own respective compacts with the state.

However, what is common to each tribe is that the casino revenue provides a great number of resources to the tribal members. That includes a number of daily needs like medical and housing services.

“For us, 90% of our revenue comes from our casino, for our tribal services, etc. So we rely heavily on our casino,” said Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Tribal Ogema Larry Romanelli. “Our casino revenue is what generates health care for our elders, housing, education for younger people, you name it. So, we’re working really hard. We have 4,000-plus members and it’s very difficult to provide all those services, very needed services.”

Little River Band operates Little River Casino Resort in Manistee. Little River Band is one of 12 Michigan tribes that operates a casino in the state. Collectively, the 12 tribes are responsible for 23 different casinos in Michigan.

Tribal casino revenue reaching pre-pandemic levels

We recently took a look at the 2022 Tribal Gaming Report in Michigan and what that indicated for the state’s tribal casinos.

Last year, the 2% payments that tribes made to local units of government were collectively greater than in 2019 ($30.8 million to $30.5 million). That’s a real positive sign for the tribes, as those payments dipped by 18.7% from 2019 to 2020 following the pandemic closing a number of casinos for months.

“That’s why we fight so hard to retain what we have. It would be devastating,” Romanelli said of if his casino continued to see a large year-over-year revenue decline.

The American Gaming Association announced last fall that fiscal year 2021 set a new tribal gross gaming revenue record across the United States. Over 515 tribal casinos nationwide, $39 billion in gross gaming revenue was recorded.

That $39 billion was a 40% jump from 2020’s fiscal year ($27.8 billion) and 13% greater than the previous record in fiscal year 2019 ($34.6 billion).

What services does tribal gaming provide local communities?

Many Michigan gamblers may not quite be aware of what the state’s tribes provide in terms of their services to the community.

In 2022, tribal gaming resulted in $30.8 million going back into their local communities.

In 2021, that number was a record-high $31.5 million.

The 2021 Receipts and Distribution of Tribal Casino Revenue Report spells out just where those millions went throughout the state.

Each tribe’s respective payment was broken down to each entity that receives funds. Most went to schools, township or city governments, fire departments and police departments.

Casinos provide more than just revenue for tribes

The revenue from casinos isn’t the only impactful aspect for tribal communities.

The casinos can be a major source of jobs for tribal members.

According to the National Indian Gaming Association, approximately half of the employees at tribal casinos are Native Americans. The AGA reported that in FY 2021, a total of 676,428 jobs were supported by the 515 tribal casinos.

Many of the tribal casinos also feature other revenue drivers like hotels, entertainment venues and restaurants.

Soaring Eagle Casino in Mt. Pleasant owns a neighboring indoor water park and hotel, while Gun Lake Casino in Wayland is in the process of building a new hotel and aquadome on its property.

Like all casinos, Little River Casino’s non-gaming business was impacted heavily by the pandemic, which forced the tribe to rely strongly on the gaming revenue.

“Now we’ve tried to expand outside of gaming and try and do other things, but because of COVID those others haven’t been able to produce nearly what we wanted,” Romanelli said. “I think we’ve learned to adjust to the flow as we go along. We’re seeing it now (the growth). We continue to just bring things back as we can and we’re careful not to overspend. We have to watch our ratio and our spending income. I think we’ve done a good job with that.”

The impact of tribal gaming isn’t just limited to the tribe. The communities they reside in also rely heavily on the tourist traffic that visits the casino, but will spend their money at other local businesses in the process.

Federal recognition a big key to casino revenue services

The services the tribal casinos provide tribal members come in connection with federal recognition from the U.S. Department of Interior.

Receiving federal recognition provides a tribe with health care, housing and education assistance programs that wouldn’t be required to be provided otherwise from the government.

It also opens the door for tribes to be able to build a tribal casino on their ancestral homelands.

That is the very issue at the core of Little River Band’s attempt to add an off-reservation casino and hotel in the Fruitport Township area.

The project calls for 3,000-5,000 jobs and would bring in a projected $12 million in annual state tax revenue, with another $1.5 million to local government. It would also be a big additional piece of revenue for the Little River tribe.

What is holding up the project is the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians seeking federal recognition from the DOI. If achieved, Grand River Bands would be able to build a casino on their territory, which would be in a neighboring area of Fruitport Township.

The DOI rejected Grand River Bands in February, but the tribe has 180 days to provide proof over what the DOI felt didn’t meet federal requirements. Should Grand River Bands fail to do so, it could leave the door open to Little River Band to secure a second casino location.

In both cases, that potential revenue for the respective tribes would mean a great deal.

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Drew Ellis

Drew Ellis is currently the Lead Writer of He was the former Lead Writer of PlayMichigan, the No. 1 source for online gambling news in Michigan. A lifelong resident of the state, Ellis has been working in various forms of media since 1998, including more than a decade in the sports betting industry prior to transitioning into US casino markets in 2020.

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