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Published in Economic Development
Little River Band of Ottawa Indians inches closer to $180M Muskegon casino COURTESY RENDERING

Little River Band of Ottawa Indians inches closer to $180M Muskegon casino

BY Thursday, October 22, 2020 04:43pm

FRUITPORT TWP. — Federal action expected tomorrow will move the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians one step closer to being able to develop a $180 million casino on land it owns in Muskegon Country.

On Friday, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal agency that operates within the U.S. Department of Interior, will announce plans to file a Final Environmental Impact Statement on the tribe’s request for the federal government to take into trust 60 acres of land at the former Great Lakes Downs horse track. The BIA’s announcement in the Federal Register then kicks off a 30-day public comment period, after which the government will issue a final decision in the application. 

If the federal government approves and takes the land into trust for the tribe, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians would then need to seek state approval for its casino plans.

For Larry Romanelli, the ogema or elected leader of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, the step marks a significant milestone in a process that’s drawn on for more than a decade. 

“This was 80 percent of what had to be done — it’s huge in my opinion,” Romanelli told MiBiz. “When we started, we hoped for a process that was five to six years, and now we’re past 10. But now we’re at a point where we have more control over that as well.”

Romanelli envisions the remaining process to get a casino up and running will take three years at the longest, assuming the approval process moves ahead in the tribe’s favor. Under certain best-case circumstances, the tribe could also shorten that time frame, Romanelli said, declining to speculate on particulars of that scenario. 

For the Environmental Impact Statement, the BIA considered the potential effects on the environment for the proposed casino development, ranging from land use, geology and water resources to agricultural, biological and cultural considerations.

The tribe purchased the horse track in 2008 to develop a second casino in addition to its resort complex north of Manistee. The proposed 69,000-square-foot Fruitport Township facility would include 1,700 slot machines, 35 table games, a 220-room hotel, and event and conference space, as well as dining and entertainment areas. 

The Muskegon area is a part of the tribe’s ancestral lands and currently home to the largest population of tribal citizens in its service area, according to Tribal Council Speaker Ron Pete. 

“A casino in Muskegon County will enable the Tribe to provide jobs, housing, health care, education and other services to our elders and youth,” Pete said in a statement. “It will also provide a very positive economic impact for the Muskegon community.”

The tribe expects the casino would create 1,000 to 1,500 jobs, as well as lead to ancillary job creation across the region. The tribe plans to fund the development internally. 

Although American Indian tribes do not pay local or state taxes on trust lands, it expects the project could spur $15 million in state tax revenue, in addition to millions in local taxes.

“It’s not only about jobs and economic development, Muskegon has needed this for a while,” Romanelli said, citing a 90-percent local approval rate for the project since it was proposed. “It’s one of the biggest projects to hit Muskegon County in quite a while. It’s good news the region needs right now, and it’s a good shot in the arm that Muskegon County needs.”

In some ways, Romanelli said the timing of the process could prove beneficial for the casino project, which can now incorporate best practices around air filtration and spacing that have been learned during the pandemic. 

He added that he’s been buoyed by the community’s support for the tribe and the casino project over the long process. 

“We’ve been ready for a long time,” Romanelli said. “We’re absolutely ready for this now, and West Michigan is ready for this as well. It’s a long time coming, and we’re still not done yet.”

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