Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer decided not to give the green light to the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians’ proposal for an off-reservation casino project in Fruitport Township, Muskegon County. What does the decision mean for the tribe? According to its chief executive officer Larry Romanelli, it’s a 12-year setback and a “flattening” of all efforts to see a casino built at the location of the former Great Downs racetrack.
3,000 Jobs Down the Drain
According to Romanelli, the $180-million casino project would have generated 3,000 new jobs for members of the tribe and their families, while supporting the housing and healthcare needs of the local community. The tribe’s efforts to open the casino started in 2007 when they acquired the horse track at Great Lakes Downs. The lengthy process included the tribe being allowed to take the respective land into trust for gaming purposes.
The approval was received from the Department of the Interior (DOI) during the last days of the Trump administration in December 2020. However, given the fact that the site was not part of the tribe’s reservation according to the federal law definition, the DOI approval also needed concurrence from the governor in order to proceed.
Disappointment and Wasted Efforts
In spite of the DOI’s approval, Whitmer wanted to wait for the matter of a different tribe’s bid to obtain federal recognition to be taken care of first. The tribe in question is the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians. Their application for recognition with the DOI is still pending. Provided they are given the green light, it means they would have the right to build a casino of their own on their sovereign land near the location of Little River Band’s planned casino. The decision on Grand River’s recognition has been postponed because of the pandemic, but it is expected to receive a final answer in October.
The federal government did not expand Whitmer’s deadline for her decision on the Fruitport Township casino, in the context of the still pending outcome for the other tribe’s application. Even more, the DOI did not wish to speed up its decision regarding the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians, taking its time on establishing its federal status. Provided they are given recognition, Grand River Band would be allowed to build a casino 92 miles away from their site.
Little River Band’s joint efforts with the Muskegon Community were spread across the past 12 years, included a $30 million investment, and were aimed at obtaining approval from the state and federal governments. Romanelli, therefore, expressed the tribe’s thankfulness for the community’s support while also emphasizing the “disappointment we feel for them”.
Community business owners, lawmakers, and leaders also expressed disappointment at Whitmaker’s decision to shut down all plans for the casino. The governor said that she would be willing to give the project another thought once the other tribe’s federal recognition matter is solved.