More than a decade ago, Grand Rapids business leaders lobbied hard to block the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, known locally as the Gun Lake Tribe, from opening a casino near Wayland.
Groups like 23 is Enough and MichGO drove the narrative that any casino development south of Grand Rapids would “siphon off” jobs and investment from the city’s then-rebuilding downtown, limiting growth in entertainment options and economic opportunity alike. They cited a study commissioned by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce in the early 2000s that estimated $880 million of “economic hemorrhaging” in the surrounding counties if Gun Lake Casino were ever allowed to move forward.
Looking around downtown Grand Rapids today, it’s hard to find evidence that their worst fears were in any way realized.
Instead, the city has continued to grow and evolve, attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in investments, new companies and more residents than it’s had in generations, especially in the downtown. At the same time, Gun Lake Casino has continued to prosper, itself expanding numerous times, including an ongoing $100 million investment that will grow its gaming, restaurant and entertainment options.
These days, it seems the only siphoning off of funds is happening in reverse of what was predicted: Money is flowing from the casino into downtown Grand Rapids, and not the other way around.
To that end, the Gun Lake Tribe’s non-gaming economic development arm, Gun Lake Investments, in partnership with Waséyabek Development Co. from the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians in Southwest Michigan, last week purchased the iconic McKay Tower at the corner of Monroe Center and Pearl streets in downtown Grand Rapids, as MiBiz was first to report. The building sits on a parcel of land that was at one time home to a Native American tribe.
The $17.5 million co-investment between the two tribal non-gaming arms reinvests casino dollars to create alternative revenue streams to support the tribes’ citizens and the tribes’ economic diversification goals, said Kurt Trevan, CEO of Gun Lake Investments.
After years of mudslinging and, at times, personal attacks toward the Gun Lake Tribe regarding the casino, the sovereign nation understandably could have chosen to invest elsewhere. Luckily for Grand Rapids, the tribes look at decision-making through a seven-generation lens. They could not turn their backs on their ancestral home; that connection, in fact, helped pull them to invest here.
So today, instead of McKay Tower being sold to an investment entity that would send its earnings to investors elsewhere, the returns will stay in the community and benefit an often invisible minority.
“These tribes, their ancestors lived here hundreds of years ago … They’re not going anywhere. This is their home. You don’t have to worry about these tribes ever leaving,” Levi Rickert, former director of the North American Indian Center of Grand Rapids and the current publisher and editor of Native News Online, said during an announcement ceremony about the McKay Tower deal. “They’ll roll up their sleeves and work for the benefit of downtown Grand Rapids. They’ve invested in further growth and prosperity in this downtown. With that, everybody wins.”
Here’s hoping that now Grand Rapids’ business and community leaders will finally see the tribes as partners in the city’s future, rather than adversaries to fight every step of the way. Instead of scrutinizing the tribe’s investments as they have in the past, city and business leaders should welcome the tribe’s commitment to Grand Rapids and work together toward their common vision of success and prosperity for the community.