The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals recently granted Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s request to temporarily stop the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians from proceeding with plans for a 5 million casino in downtown Lansing. Schuette asked the court to delay any decisions on the Sault tribe’s casino until after the U.S. Supreme Court decides the case of Michigan vs. Bay Mills Indian Community.
Schuette said he plans to ask the Supreme Court to hear the Lansing casino case separately from Bay Mills. The state has until May 14 to file a petition.
Last December the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on in the Bay Mills case. Schuette said the tribe violated state law and its state compact in 2010 when it opened a small casino in Vanderbilt, which was closed by the state. The tribe contends it bought that property with earnings from a land claim settlement trust; therefore, the land is a tribal reserve and can be used for a casino. The tribe also claimed sovereign immunity from the state’s lawsuit.
In December, the court ruled in favor of the tribe, which bought land from the city of Lansing adjacent to the Lansing Center. That ruling would have allowed the tribe to apply to have the land taken into trust for an off-reservation casino.
Schuette spokeswoman Joy Yearout said, “We’re pleased our request for stay was granted. States should have the authority to stop illegal gaming on their own sovereign land, and we expect the U.S. Supreme Court to agree when it rules in Michigan v Bay Mills Indian Community later this year. The Lansing Casino case involves similar issues – states should have the authority to enforce the agreements that authorize tribal gaming in the first place. If they don’t, the agreements are meaningless.”
John Wenet, general counsel for the Sault tribe, said the tribe contends the two lawsuits are different. The Bay Mills case dealt more with tribal immunity; in the Sault case, the court said the state’s lawsuit was premature, since no casino was operating. He said the tribe does not believe the Supreme Court will find merit in the Sault case. “If we do get land placed in trust, the state will have every opportunity to challenge that decision,” Wenet said.
In Muskegon, the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians were notified December 12 by the Office of Federal Acknowledgment of the U.S. Department of the Interior that its 1994 request for federal recognition was being “actively considered.” The letter said a “proposed finding” will be determined by December 1 if the Grand Rapids-based tribe has met seven criteria to allow department Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn to move toward a final decision—which could take another two years.
However, if federal recognition is granted, the tribe could move forward with plans to build a casino at the Harbor 31 business park development on Muskegon Lake, owned by Muskegon Lakefront LLC, an investment group led by Muskegon real estate developer Richard Anderson. Anderson’s group reportedly had spent more than $2 million by 2007 to help the tribe gain federal recognition.
Another tribe, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, also has plans to develop a casino in Muskegon in Fruitport Township at the site of a former horseracing track. The tribe operates a casino in Manistee. Last year Michigan Governor Rick Snyder gave permission for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to start the process for a second casino for the tribe, although Snyder opposes expanded casino gambling in Michigan.
Muskegon Lakefront spokesman, former Muskegon Mayor Steve Warmington, said if the tribe is federally recognized, the tribe would request the casino site be placed in federal trust, and a state compact would have to be drawn up. “How long all of that would take is uncertain. We would expedite the request if it was so desired to have a resort community developed in downtown Muskegon. We’d move with the tribe as quickly as possible.”
In the 1990s voters in the city supported a downtown casino. More recently the Muskegon City Commission has been supportive of a downtown casino although commissioners have been frustrated at the length of time it has taken for a casino to be developed and at the lack of development at the Harbor 31 business park. The city originally required Anderson’s group to start construction on two lots by December 2012 or the Harbor 31 owners had to pay off an outstanding $500,000 utility infrastructure special assessment. In January the development agreement was rewritten have Muskegon Lakefront pay the city $25,000 in lieu of construction the next two years. By 2015, the Harbor 31 owners have to either pay off the special assessment or forfeit the property to the city.
Warmington noted, “This group has been trying to get the development going and has only been owners for the past three years.” But Mayor Steve Gawron said recently, “I won’t wait for a casino. We need development now. I wish the tribe well with its recognition, but even with recognition it could be an awfully long time to navigate a casino compact and the layer of requirements needed for putting the land in trust. As a concept, we need to see if it is doable and best for downtown Muskegon. We are open to see how a casino could move our downtown forward.”