Whitmer denies proposed Muskegon area casino

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According to the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, the county casino project represents an investment of over $180 million in the community and is slated to bring approximately 3,000 jobs to the region. Courtesy Little River Band of Ottawa Indians

A proposed casino project in Fruitport will not go forward.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday, June 15, rejected a request from the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians to build an off-reservation casino at the former Great Lakes Downs Racetrack site near the U.S. 31/I-96 interchange.

Her decision came after a six-month extension from the U.S. Department of Interior. The department gave approval for the project in December 2020 and originally requested Whitmer’s concurrence by December 2021.

In a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Wednesday, the governor said she was placed in an “impossible position,” as the department had not yet provided answers on the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians’ federal acknowledgment.

“I am unable to concur in the Little River Band’s two-part determination because of the remaining uncertainty created by the Grand River Band’s pending acknowledgment petition,” Whitmer said.

She said the Grand River Band might wish to open a casino of its own in the same general area if it were to receive federal recognition.

The proposed $180 million casino project from the Little River Band has been underway since 2008, when the tribe purchased the racetrack land.

Larry Romanelli, ogema of the Little River Band, in a statement said members are “absolutely devastated” by the governor’s rejection.

“Our tribe is proud that over the (past) 12 years, we did everything right,” Romanelli said. “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 Gov. Whitmer’s decision, we respect it (since) she has the authority to make it.”

According to the tribe, the project would have created 3,000 jobs for members in the area and supported housing and other economic developments for Muskegon County.

Despite the current rejection, Whitmer’s letter indicated she would be open to revisiting the decision after the Department of Interior acted on the Grand River Bands’ petition.

“I would welcome the opportunity to revisit this question and ask that (the department) find a way for me to do so,” Whitmer said.

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