Muskegon County Tribal Casino Project Drawing Opposition On Several Fronts

Written By Matt Schoch on May 21, 2021

A report out of West Michigan this week indicated a new tribal casino in Muskegon County was close to the goal line.

If that’s the case, and let’s stay on the metaphor here, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians are going to be plunging through a defensive front made up of several opponents. Many of them are powerful.

Fellow Michigan tribes, members of the state legislature and political officials from metro Detroit have all signaled opposition.

The momentum for the Fruitport Township project could very well be too much to hold off.

But as indicated this week, the defense will not rest quietly.

Little River Band of Ottawa Indians hoping to break ground

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians have been working for over a decade to get the Muskegon County tribal casino project going, adding it to its existing Little River Casino in Manistee. The tribe is partnered with BetRivers Casino for internet casino and sports betting.

The tribe purchased a plot of land on Harvey Street off Interstate 96 near The Lakes Mall in 2008 with plans to turn it into an off-reservation casino.

WOOD-TV out of Grand Rapids, as part of its “West Michigan In Progress” series, profiled the project, giving viewers and readers an update.

In it, tribal Ogema Larry Romanelli said the $180 million project, which would include a 220-room hotel, was moving along.

“It’s really time to move this to the final stages,” Romanelli told WOOD. “That means that the governor signs off, and then the Legislature also needs to sign off. And we really need to get this thing moving. We are, in some terms, shovel-ready.”

Once construction begins, Romanelli estimated the property would be ready for action in two years.

Muskegon project needs governor, legislature approval

Romanelli pointed out that the Muskegon County tribal casino project still needs approval from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, along with the state legislature.

That’s because the tribe needs to change the gaming compact established in 1998 with the state government, which allowed Little River Casino.

The Michigan House of Representatives approved a resolution this year that signaled its opposition.

Introduced by Rep. Roger Hauck, a Republican from Union Township, the February resolution opposed “the unchecked proliferation of off-reservation gaming in the state of Michigan.”

FireKeepers, Gun Lake, Soaring Eagle tribes oppose casino

A trio of Michigan tribes that rely on regional visitors released a joint statement in opposition as well.

The tribes operate FireKeepers Casino in Battle Creek, Gun Lake Casino in Wayland and Soaring Eagle Casino in Mount Pleasant. The casinos are all within a two-hour drive of Muskegon.

The statement said the new casino would violate Section 9 of the gaming compacts, which requires all other Michigan tribes to agree to new off-reservation casinos in writing.

Section 9 of the compact between the state and Little River Band says:

“An application to take land in trust for gaming purposes outside of eligible Indian lands, as defined in Section 2(B) of this Compact, shall not be submitted to the Secretary of the Interior in the absence of a prior written agreement between the Tribe and the State’s other federally recognized Indian Tribes that provides for each of the other Tribes to share in the revenue of any gaming facility that is the subject of the application to take lands in trust for gaming purposes outside of eligible Indian lands.”

The statement says the project “circumvented Section 9, thanks to a backroom political deal by former Governor Rick Snyder.”

The statement was directed toward the Detroit City Council to make a similar stand against the Muskegon project and another that would hit closer to home.

Detroit, Wayne County officials weigh in

The reason Detroit area politicians weighed in this month was because of a similar project being long pursued by another tribe in Wayne County.

Over several years, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians have attempted to build casinos in Lansing and near Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Romulus.

The Detroit City Council issued a resolution against the Romulus and Muskegon projects this month.

“These proposed casinos are a threat to our casino revenue, good union jobs, our general fund, and income and property taxes that casino employees pay,” said councilmember Scott Benson, who represents the city’s third district and pushed for the council’s resolution, in a news release.

“I prioritize Detroit residents, and that’s who we are working to protect.”

On Thursday, the Wayne County Board of Commissioners issued a similar resolution, according to James Nye, a spokesperson for the three opposing tribes.

Tribe: Casino project will benefit Muskegon area

Back in the Muskegon area, the Little River Band still pushes forward.

The tribe has received approval from the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs and has said the casino would create 3,000 jobs, including 1,500 for construction.

The tribe has said it would create $15 million in state tax revenue.

“It’s not a simple process,” Romanelli said. “I was in my 50s when this project started. I am now in my 70s, so it’s been a long project.”

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Matt Schoch

A Michigan native, Matt has worked at newspapers in Michigan, Missouri and the Virgin Islands. A versatile sports reporter, Matt has covered sailing on the Great Lakes, cricket in the Caribbean, high school and pro playoffs, and the Olympics in Rio. He's also the host of the Locked On Pistons Podcast and producer of a documentary on Emoni Bates. A former blackjack dealer, Matt has studied the industry from all sides.

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