Deadline delay rejected by US Govt.

Michigan Gov. to decide on proposed Muskegon casino's fate by Thursday after extension request denied

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Reading time 3:16 min

A request to delay a decision on the Muskegon County casino in Michigan by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been denied by the federal government. She now has until Thursday, June 16 to decide whether to allow the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians to build an off-reservation casino near the US 31/I-96 interchange in Fruitport Township. 

The Gov. had asked for another extension of her deadline until after the U.S. Department of the Interior decides whether to officially recognize the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, which argues the property eyed for the casino is part of its ancestral homelands. Additionally, she asked the federal government to expedite its decision on the Grand River Bands’ recognition. The original deadline was December 16, 2021, but Whitmer asked and received a six-month extension then.

The Little River Band’s plans call for a $180 million development at the site of the former Great Lakes Down horse racing facility. The property would feature a 149,000-square-foot casino and 220-room hotel on 60 acres of Fruitport Township. However, should the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians receive federal acknowledgement, it could seek to build its own property.

Illustrated rendering of the projected resort.

The Department of Interior approved the casino in December 2020, giving Whitmer a year to make her decision, but she was able to get a six-month extension in the meantime. While the Little River Band’s planned casino has been receiving support for more than a decade now, it has also seen pushback from other Michigan casinos that oppose off-reservation gaming.

The Detroit City Council and the Wayne County Board of Commissioners, where three state-licensed casinos operate, issued resolutions last year to disagree with off-reservation gaming efforts, and voiced their concerns that the approval of an off-reservation casino will lead to “an influx in casino gambling operations."

Project map.

In a letter sent to Whitmer on June 6, retrieved by MLive, Wizipan Garriot, the Interior Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, said that an extension of her casino decision would not be issued, referencing a two-year COVID-related delay in researching the Grand River Bands’ request for federal acknowledgement.

The federal government intends to decide on the request by October 12. “We appreciate that the timeline of these two decisions has caused difficulty for you and your office”, Garriot wrote. 

Little River Band representatives, local officials in a meeting last year.

Whitmer’s press secretary Bobby Leddy shared a statement to the cited source saying it is “critical” to have all of the information, and described The Department of the Interior’s failure to provide necessary information by either extending the deadline for a decision on the Little River Band’s proposal, or issuing a proposed finding in response to the Grand River Bands’ acknowledgement petition as “disappointing."

The Grand River Bands has been seeking federal recognition, which the Little River Band already has, since 1994. The latter has been working to open the Fruitport Township casino for the past 12 years, and already has received federal approval for it, while it also operates a casino in Manistee. 

Supporters rallied in November last year at the Muskegon Art Museum urging Whitmer to approve the project, as it is expected to bring 3,000 jobs: half in construction and half in full-time positions -, investment and tax revenue to the county. The Little River band expects to draw an estimated 2 million visitors to the region each year. 

In a letter sent to the US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland back in May, Whitmer expressed that the Grand River Bands “may wish to open their own gaming facility” not far from the Little River Band’s proposed casino site, and that their plans could be “frustrated” if she were to approve the Little River Band’s casino. The governor pressured Haaland to decide on the tribe’s recognition before June 1, claiming the problem should be solved by the Department of Interior. 

Little River estimates the casino would attract two million visitors each year, and add tens of millions of dollars with thousands of jobs to the area's economy. A portion of the profits would be used to expand critical services, such as healthcare and housing support to the tribe's members in Muskegon, about 42%.

“The community has been asking me continually what’s going on,” said Tribal Ogema Larry Romanelli, according to News 8, in response to the delays. “We stand to lose a lot to be quite honest. We’ve worked very hard for 12, 13 years on this. We have a lot to lose: economic development, jobs and benefits for our tribal members."

Given the extended wait, some have lost hope the casino will turn into a reality. “I think if she was going to sign it, she would’ve signed it by now,” stated Fruitport Township Supervisor Todd Dunham, according to the cited source. Dunham further said the township stands to lose more than $2 million dollars, amid investments in infrastructure for the project, among other things. 

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