Autonomous casinos have long been a sustaining economic boon for Michigan’s Native American tribes.
So, what happens when the casinos close?
Such unthinkable realities have been upon us for weeks in Michigan, causing profound pain and far-reaching consequences.
Perhaps nowhere has the economic impact been felt more than with Michigan’s 12 federally recognized tribes. All of their casinos remain closed and experts maintain the COVID-19 pandemic will remain part of daily life for the foreseeable future.
A report published Monday by Bridge Magazine, a non-profit news organization in Michigan, details some of the struggles tribes are going through these days.
Michigan Tribal casinos closed
The pandemic closed all of the state’s 23 tribal casinos by March 22 and April will pass without a single legal bet placed in a Michigan casino.
The current executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has Michiganders mostly at home through May 15, which means the Detroit casinos will not reopen until then at the earliest.
Tribal casinos are not beholden to the order, though some have adopted similar timelines for reopening throughout the ordeal.
Tribal budgets, services hit hard
The tribes are not required to disclose internal budgetary details, but there’s profound pain.
Casinos help fund tribal governments, which impact public entities such as health departments, education, police force, natural resources management and social services.
In Bridge’s report, several revenue disclosures were spotlighted:
- Chris Swartz, president of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, said the Ojibwa Casino in Baraga funds as much as 60% of the tribe’s budget.
- Frank Cloutier, tribal spokesman for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, said gaming revenue accounts for three-quarters of the tribe’s budget.
- Frank Ettawageshik, executive director of the United Tribes of Michigan, estimated that gaming revenue provides about half the funds for tribal governments.
Non-tribal entities hurting from closures too
According to the annual report by the state’s gaming board, Michigan tribal casinos contributed more than $30 million to local governments and more than $54 million to the state from revenue sharing in 2019.
According to Bridge, revenue sharing payments from Bay Mills Indian Community funded nearly half the budget for Bay Mills Township.
In addition to being some of the largest direct employers for remote rural Michigan communities, several ancillary businesses exist largely on the backs of the casinos.
Stimulus funding hard to come by
There are avenues for tribes to receive some relief from the federal government.
The CARES stimulus package last month earmarked $8 billion for tribes but a fight over the inclusion of Alaska Native Corporations has stalled implementation and distribution.
The package also had a Paycheck Protection Program for small business. However, the Small Business Administration included a provision for funding that excluded casino operators.
However, the National Indian Gaming Association said last week the SBA ruled in favor of casinos and that they were eligible for the forgivable loans.