The debate over a proposed casino in Muskegon County will now be decided by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians has been attempting to gain the approvals necessary to build a $180 million casino center nearly 90 miles away from its tribal lands. Supporters of the new casino claim the project will bring new jobs and boost economic growth for western Michigan, while detractors are concerned it could set a bad precedent by allowing other tribes to pursue casinos in new areas that could affect profits and revenues of current operators.
The federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act typically bans gaming on lands acquired in trust. But an exception can be made if the Secretary of Indian Affairs of the Interior Department determines a project is in the best interest of the tribe and would not be a detriment to the surrounding communities.
Now, it’s up to Whitmer to decide within a year if the project can advance. The administration is currently reviewing the application, according to press secretary Bobby Leddy.
Little River Band Sets Sights on Casino
According to the Little River Band, the new 69,000 square-foot casino and 200-room hotel would bring $15 million in tax revenue and nearly 3,000 jobs, with 1,201 to operate the casino and 1,763 for construction.
The Little River Band currently has a casino in Manistee but has been attempting to launch a casino in Muskegon County for more than a decade. The tribe is looking to utilize the old Great Lakes Downs racetrack in Muskegon County’s Fruitport Township near the interchange of Interstate 96 and U.S. 31.
The tribe has a large contingent of its members in Muskegon County. According to the federal government, the Little River Band are descendants of a confederation that centered on the Grand River in an area “that is now modern-day Muskegon County, since as early as the 1700s.”
Plus, more of its 4,800 members live in Muskegon County than in Manistee, where the tribe’s headquarters is located.
The tribe has received support from the community, with the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners, Fruitport Township and the city of Norton Shores backing the casino project. Local officials appeared in a three-minute promotional video that was shown to the governor to display their support.
“Muskegon is a proud town,” Ryan Bennett, business agent for West Michigan Plumbers & Fitters Local 174, said in the video clip. “We’re blue-collar, and we’re scrappy. We just need a project like this to help get us going again.”
Detractors Concerned About Casino Revenue Splitting
Those opposed to the Little River Band’s new casino location are worried that Whitmer’s blessing could set a precedent for other tribes attempting to establish casinos in new areas.
Detroit’s three commercial casinos are already dealing with lower revenues because of the pandemic. Together, they generated $620 million in 2020, down 57% from a year ago. Last week, the Wayne County Commission approved a resolution against the proposed casino project in Muskegon County.
The resolution stated: "The Wayne County Commission is concerned with the economic health and well-being of these casinos, local governments, other Wayne County businesses and citizens, who stand to be harmed by an influx in casino gambling operations that would be prompted by the approval of off-reservation gaming.”
Fruitport Township is nearly 188 driving miles from Detroit.
If approved by Whitmer, the Little River Band plans to begin construction within 60 days.
The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians is partnered with Rush Street Interactive (RSI) for online sports betting and internet casino gaming. RSI's BetRivers platform debuted when Michigan officially went live with online gaming on Jan. 22.