How New Legislation Would Affect Little River Band’s Casino Plans

Written By Drew Ellis on October 11, 2023
Image of Michigan's assembled House and Senate for story on how a new bill could affect the Little River Band's attempt to build a second casino

The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians are finally getting some good news for garnering federal recognition.

New legislation, which has bipartisan backing, has been crafted to grant the tribe just that after a decades-long battle.

It’s the latest development in a story that also centers around a potential new casino being built in Fruitport Township by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.

Bipartisan bill to give tribe federal recognition introduced

A bipartisan group of Michigan’s congress introduced the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians Restoration Act late in September.

The bill aims to grant congressional federal recognition to the tribe. It would not grant federal lands, however.

Representatives Hillary Scholten (D-Grand Rapids) and John Moolenaar (R-Midland) introduced the legislation. The bill is co-sponsored by:

  • Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet)
  • Dan Kildee (D-Flint)
  • Lisa McClain (R-Romeo)
  • Elissa Slotkin (D-Lansing)
  • Haley Stevens (D-Waterford Township)
  • Tim Walberg (R-Tipton)

Federal recognition would give tribal members access to resources like tuition, health care and housing assistance. The Grand River Bands have been seeking federal recognition since 1994.

Most recently they had their request for federal recognition denied by the Department of Interior last February.

“The Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians has made Michigan a better place and is worthy of full recognition from the federal government,” Rep. Moolenaar said in a statement. “This legislation will cut through the red tape the tribe has experienced in dealing with the Department of Interior for 23 years. It is long overdue, and I am proud to join the tribe in supporting its efforts for federal recognition.”

Little River off-reservation casino still in consideration

Stuck in the middle of this federal recognition pursuit for the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians is a proposed casino being built in Fruitport Township.

The casino is proposed by Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, which would be an off-reservation casino location in the Muskegon area.

The Little River Band, which operates Little River Casino Resort in Manistee, was approved for the casino by the Department of Interior in late 2020.

The tribe then went about negotiating a new compact with the state, which had to be approved by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Just prior to a groundbreaking, Whitmer rejected the tribe’s proposal in June of 2022, citing the pending federal recognition for the Grand River Bands. The tribe would be entitled to build an on-reservation casino in the vicinity of Fruitport Township if they received the proposed recognition.

Since then, Little River Band has continued to wait while the Grand River Bands’ recognition efforts continued to play out.

However, Grand River Bands Tribal Chairman Ron Yob told the Grand Rapids Press in September that building a casino of their own “doesn’t even come up” in conversations.

That could open the door for Little River Band to revisit its casino project, which was first proposed in 2015.

A second casino likely wouldn’t impact the tribe’s standing among online casinos in Michigan. The Little River Band works with Rush Street Interactive to offer BetRivers Casino Michigan, and a second casino — if it ever comes to fruition — would in all likelihood just be a brick-and-mortar venture.

What’s next for both tribes?

Both tribes certainly can see the latest developments as a positive. Where it leads next is still somewhat up in the air.

Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians

The Department of Interior stated that the tribe didn’t meet one of seven required criteria to receive federal recognition.

It was stated that the tribe failed to demonstrate that its members comprise a distinct community that has existed as a community through time. It noted that some of its current members were already enrolled in other recognized tribes while other members were deceased.

The tribe was given 180 days to respond to the finding, but were given a 180-day extension that will run until Feb. 26, 2024.

Now, the Grand River Bands has another avenue to get the recognition it has been seeking for its members.

“The Grand River Bands applauds Michigan lawmakers for introducing this critical legislation, which will give our tribe access to critical resources — such as health care, housing and education. We are hopeful Congress will pass this critical legislation to ensure that the Grand River Bands will continue to be an important part of the history of West Michigan for generations to come,” Yob said in a statement.

Scholten is now working to get the bill a hearing at the US House Committee on Natural Resources.

Little River Band of Ottawa Indians

The Little River Band has been ready to resubmit its proposed casino plans to the Department of Interior once again. However, it is awaiting an indication from Gov. Whitmer that they won’t be rejected at the finish line once again.

Tribal Ogema Larry Romanelli told PlayMichigan that he has been unsuccessful in his requests for a meeting with Gov. Whitmer.

However, the two will speak at the annual State-Tribal Summit, which comes later in 2023. It’s an event where all tribes are able to have an opportunity to speak to Gov. Whitmer on issues they face.

The $180 million project would take about two years to complete. It’s on an 87-acre plot of land that Little River Band purchased in 2008.

Romanelli projects $12 million in annual state tax revenue once it is operational.

Last April, Romanelli indicated that the tribe may not have much longer to wait for approval if the project is going to happen.

“Even if this drags out another year. It won’t happen,” he 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.”

Romanelli told PlayMichigan that there is no new update on a timeline for the tribe. However, he looked forward to finding out more about this proposed legislation for the Grand River Bands.

Photo by AP Photo/Al Goldis
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Drew Ellis

Drew Ellis is the 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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