After 14-year push

Michigan Gov. rejects tribal, off-reservation casino project in Muskegon after federal deadline extension denial

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Reading time 3:02 min

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer rejected on Wednesday a request by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians to build an off-reservation casino in Fruitport Township, Muskegon County, a project that has been under discussion for almost 14 years. Whitmer said she was placed in an “impossible position” by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which this week denied a six-month deadline extension to decide on the project.

In a letter addressed to US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Whitmer said she could not support the Little River Band’s request because of the uncertainty created by another West Michigan tribe, the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians, which is seeking federal acknowledgment from the Department of Interior. Should it get this recognition, the Grand River Band may wish to open its own casino in the same area as the Little River Band. 

The Department of the Interior first needs to decide whether they are providing federal recognition to the neighboring Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians. It is critical to have this information before making an informed decision. Without that information, I am unable to concur at this time and remain disappointed in the Department’s lack of flexibility in this process," Whitmer stated. 

The lack of information, Wretchen argued, has placed her "in an impossible position." "Despite my best efforts to get answers from DOI with respect to the pending Grand River Bands’ acknowledgment petition, I am left without information critical to my decision on the Little River Band’s two-part determination," she said.

Currently operating a casino in Manistee, 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. The governor’s decision was a blow to the Little River tribe and Muskegon area officials who have advocated for the casino for years

I realize that this non-concurrence is disappointing to the Little River Band and to supporters in the local community, and I am mindful of the significant amount of time and investment that went into this proposal. My commitment to creating good-paying jobs and economic development in Muskegon is unwavering, and I’ll stand side by side with anyone," Whitmer wrote.

Due to the fact that the proposed casino was not on tribal lands, it required both federal and state approval. The US Department of Interior gave its approval to the Little River tribe in December 2020, saying the casino would be “in the best interest of the tribe” and “would not be detrimental” to the community. The Little River Tribe says 42% of its members live in the Muskegon area. 

Fruitport Township Supervisor, Todd Dunham, said the governor’s decision was “so disheartening” due to the fact that the project has been under discussion for 14 years. “It would have helped out the whole west side here, everybody’s had these new developments and developers coming to them because of the possibility of that casino coming, and now it’s just all gone."

Meanwhile, Larry Romanelli, elected ogema of the Little River Band, said tribal members were "absolutely devastated" by Whitmer's lack of approval. “This project would have created and supported 3,000 jobs for Tribal members and families in the community along with providing funds for healthcare and housing,” he said in a statement. "Words cannot express how thankful we are for our community’s support and the disappointment we feel for them.”

Even though the proposed casino was buoyed by broad local support, there was pushback from other Michigan casinos that oppose off-reservation gaming. The Detroit City Council and the Wayne County Board of Commissioners issued resolutions last year opposing efforts to expand off-reservation gaming in the state. 

The state House also approved a resolution in February 2021, opposing the expansion of off-reservation gaming that is not within gaming compacts approved by the tribes, the state and the US Department of Interior. 

The project was first discussed in 2008, when the tribe purchased the 87-acre Great Lakes Downs property. After the U.S. Department of Interior gave its approval to the Little River tribe in 2020, Whitmer had one year to concur with the decision. Whitmer received a six-month extension to make her decision in December 2021, but was then denied a second prorogation, forcing her to make a final decision by June 16. 

Whitmer, in her letter to Haaland, said she would “would welcome the opportunity to revisit” the Little River Band’s casino request once the Interior Department decides on the Grand River Band’s acknowledgement request.

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