Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer recently rejected a request by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians to build an off-reservation casino in Fruitport Township. The tribe had pursued the project for nearly 14 years.
In a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Whitmer said she couldn’t approve the tribe’s request because of “uncertainty created” by the request of the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians for federal recognition from the Interior Department, which has until October 12 to make a decision on that tribe’s petition. The Interior Department gave Whitmer an extended deadline of June 16 to rule on the Little River Band’s request.
In a statement, Whitmer said, “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 said if the Grand River Band receives federal recognition, it may want to open its own casino in the same area as the Little River Band’s proposed casino in Fruitport Township. The Little River Band had proposed a $180 million casino and 220-room hotel on off-reservation land at the former Great Lakes Downs Racetrack. The tribe currently operates a casino in Manistee.
Little River Band Tribal Ogema Larry Romanelli said tribal members were “absolutely devastated” by Whitmer’s rejection. “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. Our tribe has worked hand-in-hand with the Muskegon Community for the past 12 years to gain approval from the federal government and state government. Words cannot express how thankful we are for our community’s support and the disappointment we feel for them.”
Romanelli added, “We did everything right. The project has been supported by the Obama, Trump and Biden presidential administrations along with the Granholm and Snyder gubernatorial administrations. We received approvals from the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We met all the criteria required for approval. And while we disagree completely with Governor Whitmer’s decision, we respect that she has the authority to make it.”
State Senator Jon Bumstead stated, “I am extremely disappointed, angered and let down by Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s decision to kill 3,000 good-paying jobs by denying the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians’ request to build a casino in Muskegon. The fact is, this has been the governor’s decision to make for over a year, and it is now hers alone to own. Her attempts to shift blame are laughable given the project’s virtually unanimous support from here all the way to Washington, D.C. It is unfortunate that the governor is playing politics with people’s lives and livelihoods. This decision to reject the casino was not in the best interest of Michiganders and on behalf of the residents of my district and of West Michigan: Shame on you, Governor Whitmer.”
Whitmer acknowledged the impact of her decision, stating, “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.”
While the Little River Band criticized Whitmer’s decision, Ron Yob, chairman of the Grand River Bands, expressed his tribe’s relief.
“We applaud Governor Whitmer for her thoughtfulness and for doing the appropriate due diligence to make this important decision,” he said. “With this decision now made, the Grand River Bands will finalize our federal recognition with the potential of pursuing economic development activities in the Muskegon area.
In addition to Grand River Bands, three other tribes opposed the Little River Band’s casino: Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, which owns the FireKeepers Casino Hotel near Battle Creek; the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, operators of the Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort in Mount Pleasant and Saganing Eagles Landing in Standish; and the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, which owns Gun Lake Casino in Bradley.
Jamie Stuck, chairman of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, said, “Whitmer realizes that the request to approve this off-reservation casino would have violated the gaming compacts signed by all of the tribes in Michigan. Her decision maintains the cooperation and balance among the Michigan tribes.”
In addition, the state House passed 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 U.S. Department of Interior. The Detroit City Council and the Wayne County Board of Commissioners also have issued resolutions opposing expanded off-reservation gaming in Michigan; three commercial casinos operate in Detroit.
All hope may not be lost for the Little River Band, however. Whitmer said, “Once DOI has acted on the Grand River Bands’ acknowledgment petition, I would welcome the opportunity to revisit this question and ask that you to find a way for me to do so.”