Tribal Leader Outlines Proposed Michigan Casino

Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Ogema Larry Romanelli explained the tribe's land-trust application for a casino at the former Great Lakes Downs (l.) in Fruitport Township, Michigan. Romanelli said the 69,000 square foot casino, the tribe's second, would offer 1,700 electronic games and 35 table games, plus a 220-room hotel.

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians recently applied to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to have land taken into trust for a casino in Fruitport Township, Michigan at the former Great Lakes Downs racetrack. Based in Manistee County, the 69,000 square foot development would offer a gaming floor with 1,700 electronic games and 35 table games, plus a 220-room hotel and five dining options. The tribe currently operates the Little River Casino Resort in Manistee.

Larry Romanelli, the tribe’s ogema, or president, said one reason the location was chosen was because “there was already gaming on the site for number of years through the racetrack. We think it fits what we need to do. It has ample room for parking and just the general location.” He added, “Because the revenues here are not what they used to be and we have more members all the time, we are trying to provide some services to our members and also provide jobs for the community. As you know, we provide jobs to our members but also to the community through our casino. We are the number one employer in Manistee with our casino. Jobs and economic development are the two things we are looking for.”

Romanelli said the casino would create up to 1,200 jobs. “Obviously, when you have a casino of that size, it does encourage other economic development in the area, through entrepreneurship and other people coming to the area. The Lakes Mall has created that as well. It’s a growing area. There is still ample room out there for more growth.”

The next step for casino development will be a review by BIA officials, who will forward the application to the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. “The department will then issue a notice of intent to take the land in trust sometime this spring. We are looking at a short time frame for that. Once that happens, it still has to come back to the state of Michigan for final approval. It could be several years yet. But it is a big step for us,” Romanelli said.

He said he’s frequently asked if he thinks there is a saturation point for Michigan casinos. “I do, but I don’t think we are at it right now by any means, and especially in the Muskegon area. If you look at the map of Michigan, Muskegon is very prime to have a casino. I think you have seen the largest influx of casinos come. It’s trickling off now. In my eight years as ogema, I think I’ve seen six casinos pop up. But you’ll see, I believe, a slow down.”

Not everyone is happy about the tribe’s pursuit of a Muskegon casino. Reverend Bill Randall, a longtime pastor in the area, listed several reasons to oppose the proposed casino: “Muskegon has a large number of unemployed people who would seek to strike it rich. There will be a few high paying jobs but many casino salaries would be at entry level. Casinos exist to skim money from the community. Financial gain through jobs would be overbalanced by foreclosures, bankruptcy and definitely there would be children going hungry. The cost to taxpayers for mental health and family services would spike. Police would be required at the site but crime comes to the streets when desperate people lose it all. Corruption often accompanies gambling.”

He concluded, “Let the emphasis be upon education and job training. Native Americans would have a greater satisfaction through accomplishment than by waiting each month for their percentage of casino profits.”