Those hoping for the addition of a new retail casino in the Muskegon area know June 16 is a big day.
This Thursday marks the deadline for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to approve a new compact with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians to build an off-reservation casino in Fruitport Township.
While there is a lot of local support for the move, there is a lot of opposition from other tribes and casino operators around the state.
Confusing matters even further is the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians awaiting a ruling by Oct. 12 to federally recognize them as a tribe. If that occurs, they would be entitled to building a casino in a nearby location.
What this all means is that Michigan could find itself with one new casino, two new casinos, or no new casinos in the upcoming years.
How we got here with potential Muskegon area casino
In 2008, the Little River Band purchased a plot of land in Fruitport Township with plans to turn it into an off-reservation casino. Already operating Little River Casino in Manistee, the tribe’s gaming compact only allowed for the one casino. Thus, a new compact would have to be approved by the Michigan legislature and the governor.
The proposal called for a 69,000-square foot casino and 220-room hotel over 86 acres of land near the Muskegon area. The $180 million project was approved by the U.S. Department of Interior on Dec. 16, 2020. Whitmer then had one year to sign off as well.
While getting local support, there is great pushback on the project from the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians (Gun Lake Casino), the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi (FireKeepers Casino), and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe (Soaring Eagle) citing it would impact their operations due to the close locations to their respective operations. Each is roughly a 2-hour drive from the proposed site.
Detroit casino representatives have also voiced opposition to the project. Whitmer was granted a six-month extension to make a decision, but time is almost up.
The Grand River Bands came into the picture more recently, believing this project was giving away their ancestral homelands. With their tribe awaiting federal recognition by an Oct. 12 deadline, Whitmer feels stuck on making a decision on the Little River expansion.
Whitmer requested a further extension, but that was recently denied by federal government. That means Thursday is decision day.
Ultimately, what Michigan could see is a 27th land-based casino in the years to come. It could even see a 28th, or perhaps just stand pat at 26. Either way, things are going to get interesting in a few days.
Outcome No. 1: Little River Band is granted the new casino land
The outcome that the Little River tribe has been pushing for for over a decade is the one that appears most logical for a 27th retail casino.
They are ready to start building as soon as they’re given permission.
What they don’t have is the full support of Michigan’s tribes, which is key. The opposing tribes state the casino would violate Section 9 of the gaming compacts, which requires all other Michigan tribes to agree to new off-reservation casinos.
An off-reservation tribal casino hasn’t been granted in Michigan since 2000. The Baraga-based Keweenaw Bay Indian Community received state approval to open a second Ojibwa Casino location in Chocolay Township, just east of Marquette.
Little River has proposed that the new casino would create 3,000 new jobs, with 1,500 of them being permanent.
Outcome No. 2: Grand River Bands is federally recognized, builds own casino
Believing it has rights to the land, the Grand River Bands could ultimately see that hold true through federal recognition. It’s something the tribe has been seeking since 1994.
Federally recognized tribes are given access to services through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Included in that are health care, real estate services, educational services, and more.
Should they receive recognition, they would be entitled to build a casino on their lands should they choose.
While they have not proposed any plans to do so, Whitmer doesn’t want to give the right for Little River to build if Grand River Bands ultimately is given the territory.
Outcome No. 3: Both tribes build casinos
Given Whitmer is under a strict deadline of Thursday, it is possible to see her grant permission to Little River to begin building its proposed casino.
We could then see Grand River Bands federally recognized, opening the door for them to do as they choose with their territory.
Little River Band Tribal Ogema Larry Omanelli has been quick to point out that Grand River tribe members share a connected bloodline and many work for his tribe. He feels their argument over federal recognition is unrelated to Little River’s pursuits.
Outcome No. 4: Neither tribe builds a casino
Little River’s situation is pretty straight forward. Its fate rests in the hands of Gov. Whitmer and her decision.
If she doesn’t approve, there is no casino for them to build.
Grand River may not get the federal recognition it seeks, which would not entitle it to any territory to build a casino.
The tribe could also get the recognition it seeks, but just opt not to use the land for a land-based casino.