The Casino Next Door

March 2, 2007
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WAYLAND — After seven years of lobbying and litigation, it is now all but certain that there will be a tribal casino in West Michigan's backyard, leaving stakeholders anxiously planning their next move.

This week marks the deadline for the U.S. Department of the Interior to take the former Ampro manufacturing facility in Bradley into trust on behalf of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, commonly known as the Gun Lake Tribe, clearing the way for renovation of the property into a 147-acre casino.

It is expected that the government will delay taking the land into trust, however, pending a federal court decision expected in the coming days.

On Feb. 23, a federal court dismissed a lawsuit brought by Michigan Gambling Opposition challenging the decision to place the land into trust. The suit's primary argument was that the government had not properly examined the environmental impacts of the casino. MichGo, an anti-gaming group founded by Allegan County residents, has requested a stay against that decision pending an appeal.

If the stay is not granted, the Gun Lake Casino will likely break ground in the next 60 days. If it is granted, there is a still a strong possibility that the casino will begin construction in the coming months. The appeals court recently heard two similar cases and sided with the government on both. Last year, it dismissed a lawsuit against Dowagiac's Pokagon Band of Pottawatomi Indians and the forthcoming Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, a nearly identical case involving a Southwest Michigan group called Taxpayers of Michigan Against Casinos, represented by the same Warner Norcross & Judd attorneys and many of the same environmental consultants.

"All of these issues have already been argued about and upheld," said John Shagonaby, CEO of MBPI Inc., the tribe's economic development office. "The advantage of going through this process after them is that we were able to look at what they did and learn from it."

Unlike the other cases, Shagonaby noted, no aspect of the MichGo complaint was upheld, including the one issue for which Judge John Garret Penn thought the environmental assessment data was suspect: traffic congestion. The tribe is confident an appeal will not be granted.

John Helmholdt, spokesman for 23 is Enough — the Grand Rapids-based Political Action Committee that provided much of financing for the MichGo lawsuit and other efforts to block the casino — believes the post-argument inclusion of a March 2005 Bureau of Indian Affairs document circulated as guidance for gaming-related acquisitions distinguishes its case from the others. He argues the checklist details a written policy requiring a detailed Environmental Impact Statement, the absence of which has been the core of the MichGo suit. Judge Penn disagreed.

Either way, the tribe is now ramping up efforts for the potentially $250 million project. With roughly 100,000 square feet of gaming, including 2,400 machines and 75 tables, the casino is roughly half the size of the Soaring Eagle Casino Resort in Mount Pleasant. It will directly employ 1,800 after construction is completed, not including the labor required for the 12- to 14-month project.

The tribe is wrapping up negotiations on a labor agreement for the project.

"We believe the casino will have a huge economic impact in that area," said Hugh Coward, president of the Iron Workers Local 340 in Battle Creek and the Southwestern Michigan Building Trades Council, which is currently building the 674-acre Four Winds development. "We're expecting a lot of man hours on this. It's going to be a fast-track project with a lot of workers on site."

The Nevada gaming company tapped to manage the facility, Station Casinos, has invested millions in the project. Not likely to affect the Gun Lake partnership, the publicly traded company announced last week that it would be taken private by its founding family in a deal worth $5.5 billion. The tribe itself has amassed millions of dollars of debt, and is anxious to see a return on that investment.

Also looking forward to the groundbreaking are the thousands of potential workers introduced to the project at job fairs organized by Friends of the Gun Lake Tribe, a 10,000-member group organized to oppose MichGo and 23 is Enough. The tribe plans to host a final job and vendor fair when construction is underway. Less than 5 percent of positions are expected to be filled by the tribe's 325 members.

"There are going to be a lot of jobs available for people from all over the region," said Jason Palmer, the tribe's director of development. "We want to strengthen the region and the economy … and we want to use vendors who have been supportive of that."

Especially in the past few months, the tribe has emphasized a commitment to avoid hiring members of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce or Holland Area Chamber of Commerce, organizations that have taken a position against the casino development, with limited exceptions for "sole-source" providers such as advertising outlets and other unique vendors. Special preference will be granted to members of organizations that have supported the project, such as the West Michigan Hispanic, BarryCounty, Allegan and Kalamazoo chambers of commerce, among others.

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce is largely credited with organizing the original opposition to the casino during the tenure of former president John Brown. It spearheaded opposition efforts, through a separately funded committee, until the launch of 23 is Enough as a function of public relations agency Jones & Gavan LLC, today known as Strategic Communications Group.

Current Chamber President Jeanne Englehart said that while the chamber's position toward the casino has not changed since 2001, it has not been actively involved with 23 is Enough or corresponding efforts since shortly after she took office.

"If construction does get underway, our hope is that all the region's businesses will have an equal opportunity to compete for any projects," she said. "We presume the investors in the casino are interested in profits and will ultimately demand the best quality at the lowest prices."

Englehart said that some members have left the chamber with intentions to bid on the $20 million in annual casino purchases, but with a 20 percent gain in membership last year, the loss is statistically insignificant.

Jane Clark, president of the Holland Chamber of Commerce, said the casino has been a "non-issue" in the three years she has led the organization. The chamber did adopt a position against tribal gaming expansion in 2003, but not specific to the Gun Lake Casino. It was never a member of 23 is Enough, she said, and recently requested to be removed from the PAC's list of supporters.

"Will we have members bidding on the work? I don't know," she said. "I've only had one member say anything about it either way, and that was 'Keep up the good work.'"

Englehart said that there had been virtually no discussion among its members or leadership concerning the casino in recent memory, and added that the chamber might someday count the Gun Lake Casino among its members.

"We continue to oppose for the same reasons we have in the past, but it's not a priority," she said. "We have remained open to all dialogue on this issue."

The chamber's concern, and the original sentiment behind the opposition, is that Grand Rapids' burgeoning hospitality, entertainment and convention sector cannot weather competition from a nearby casino. (This is not the case for MichGo, which opposes the casino for social reasons, as do some 23 is Enough members.)

Grand Rapids and West Michigan has invested significant amounts of money in our arena and convention center," said State Rep. Michael Sak, D-Grand Rapids. "The gambling issue is secondary. I don't want to see convention people not going to Grand Rapids entertainment venues because they're going to an AlleganCounty casino."

Sak cited as an example the Soaring Eagle in Mount Pleasant, which has grown beyond gaming into a full-fledged resort that includes lodging, entertainment and spas. He guessed that there are at least 15 Democrats in the House who would side with him against the Gun Lake Casino, and likely a majority of Republicans.

While the debate on whether a casino is right for West Michigan could soon be obsolete, it remains to be seen how much of a casino it will have.

Under normal circumstances, the tribe will need a compact approved by the legislature and governor to operate a Class III casino. Without it, the tribe can move ahead with a Class II casino, which would be limited primarily to card games, bingo and some electronic games, with no local or state regulation.

In 2002, the House and Senate approved a Class III compact for the casino, which then-Gov. John Engler opted not to sign. Since then, the Senate has voted to remove its approval, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm has not reopened the issue, although she is in discussions with the tribe.

While the tribe will move ahead with the Class II project initially, any avenue it proceeds on toward Class III gaming will likely involve further litigation.

"If the court rules against us, the fight will ultimately move to Lansing," said Helmholdt, the 23 is Enough spokesman.

The tribe is fully expecting another legal fight, said James Nye, who leads the tribe's government relations efforts. The state has 180 days after the land is taken into trust to negotiate a compact. If Granholm signs the existing compact, there will be a challenge against its validity. If she does not, the tribe will take its case to the Department of Interior, which last year granted a Wyoming tribe's request to conduct Class III gaming without a compact.

In an interview last week on Newsradio WOOD 1300 in Grand Rapids, Granholm indicated she would prefer to negotiate a new compact — which, by law, must again be approved by the legislature — with hopes to avoid the failures of previous compacts.

"They're going to start their casino one way or another, and we need to negotiate to get the best deal for the citizens of Michigan," she said.    

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