Tribe moving on Fruitport casino plans

November 5, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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Nov. 6, 2007, marked the last thoroughbred race at Great Lakes Downs in Fruitport, near Muskegon. Then the Canadian corporation that owned it mothballed the track and put it up for sale.

The long, lonely silence at the 87-acre former race track was finally broken in October by the new owners — and then by the screams and howls of Boy Scouts.

The new owners, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, bought the property for $5 million in July — $4 million less than the listed asking price — and announced plans to build a casino there. The tribe, which opened its first casino in Manistee in 1999, has numerous tribal members living in the Muskegon area, including their ogema (meaning chief), Larry Romanelli, who lives in Fruitport.

He and several other tribal leaders were at the property in early October to meet with consulting engineers from Atwell-Hicks to begin formulating plans. The initial issue, according to Romanelli, is "where on this property the casino fits best. We're trying to get a rough idea."

"It's pristine property," he added. "We're excited."

So are the members of Boy Scout Troop 14 in nearby Spring Lake, who were given permission by the Little River Band to use the race course grandstand building this year — without charge — for their popular Haunted Hall. Troop 14 has energetically put together a Halloween spook house open to the general public for nine years in a row, with the admission revenue funding the troop's various other activities throughout the year. More than 300 people paid $6 each to tour the Haunted Hall Oct. 4, opening night.

Romanelli said the Haunted Hall this year is "huge." The Scouts are using just part of the grandstand building, which has 62,514 square feet of space, according to Grubb & Ellis|Paramount Commerce, which had the property listed for sale. The property also has living quarters used by jockeys and trainers, a 17,166-square-foot paddock and lots of stables.

While the Scouts have their Halloween fun and raise some money, the tribe is moving forward in the first step in the legal process of opening a tribal casino, which entails putting some of the land in trust with the federal government. Romanelli said that can be a lengthy process. He guessed that the earliest a casino would open there would be in two to four years, although others in his tribe think it could happen within three years.

Romanelli said the Little River Band has been contacted by a number of business interests with proposals since the tribe acquired the property in July.

"Horse-racing groups have approached us," he said, although nothing has been decided.

They have also heard from big box retailers about the possibility of locating on the property. The tribe is willing to listen to any offers, according to Romanelli.

The former race track is in a highly visible and accessible location, at the intersection of U.S. 31 and I-96. It's only a few miles southeast of downtown Muskegon and about 32 miles from downtown Grand Rapids.

Of potential advantage to a casino on the site is its close proximity to the Lakes Mall, which opened in 2001 about one mile south. Since then, additional retail developments have materialized between the mall and the race track. Grubb & Ellis|Paramount Commerce estimated there are about 2 million square feet of retail business in the immediate vicinity.

"The mall has given us their support," said Romanelli.

Michael Hagen, general manager of the Lakes Mall, said his organization has indeed had some brief, informal contact with tribal members. He said the mall would be "interested" in considering partnering with the tribe on different opportunities or promotions, although he added that the tribe has advised him that the casino approvals process has not advanced to the point where they can discuss any specific ideas.

However, Hagen said, "Casinos and retail do go together well. It's been proven in many different models."

CBL & Associates Properties, which owns the Lakes Mall, is a major real estate investment trust with 158 properties throughout the U.S., including many malls. Hagen said CBL & Associates Properties "does have a number of (retail) centers with casinos down the road from them and it's been proven time and time again that retail and casino locations work well together."

Only days after the Little River Band announced its proposal to build a casino in Fruitport, it won the support of the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners. Romanelli said elected officials of Fruitport and Sullivan townships have offered their support, too.

Romanelli said there was a "snafu" involving the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce. He was referring to publicity about a memo sent by a chamber executive that was critical of the casino proposal, in language that offended some tribal members.

Wes Eklund, the chairman of the Muskegon chamber board, said the chamber has since met with some of the higher-ranking members of the Little River Tribe and started discussions about how they can work together going forward.

"Our position all along on a casino in the Muskegon area has been neutral,” Eklund said. “We're not against it; we're not for it. However, if it looks like it is going to possibly happen, we plan to work closely with the tribe to make it a win-win for the community."

The Little River tribe's Manistee casino is 90 miles to the north, and one proposed by another tribe may be built in Wayland, just south of Grand Rapids. The Pokagon Band of Pottawatomi Indians opened the Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, one of the largest tribal casinos in Michigan, on Aug. 2, 2007. Next summer, the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians will open a casino in Battle Creek, which is now under construction. Then, of course, there is the big Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mount Pleasant, plus other tribal casinos from Traverse City north.

Romanelli conceded that there is a "saturation point" for casinos, but he said he does not believe that point has been reached.

"We're trying to promote West Michigan. I'd like to think of us as the anchor stores" for casino entertainment in the region, from Manistee all the way down to the Muskegon area, he said.

The rocky economy, however, is yet another factor that is apparently looming larger over the Little River tribe's plans. Business at its Manistee casino has slowed down. “Every business has felt it and we're no different," Romanelli said.

He said the "take" at Manistee has dropped, probably by about 6 percent, but that is not as much as some had anticipated. He said the casino has postponed filling some job vacancies there but has not yet laid off any employees.

"We have to watch (the economy) and go with the flow," he said.

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