Casino efforts mixed

September 12, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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(Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a series of stories examining the plans for the Gun Lake Casino and potential competition in West Michigan.)

As the Gun Lake Tribe of Pottawatomi Indians prepares to break ground on its new Wayland Township casino this week, less than an hour's drive to the northwest the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians has workmen on a site where they hope to build yet another Native American casino.

Both casinos would be a half-hour drive or less from downtown Grand Rapids. Meanwhile, other casinos are already in business to the north, northeast and south — especially in southwest Michigan, where two large Native American casinos opened in the past 14 months.

Will there be enough gamblers to go around for two more casinos in West Michigan?

The Gun Lake Casino groundbreaking comes after many legal battles, nearly 10 years after the tribe announced plans to open a casino on land it bought at the Bradley exit on U.S. 131. The Little River Band, which already operates a casino at Manistee, bought the defunct Great Lakes Downs horserace track in Fruitport Township near Muskegon in July 2008, and promptly announced plans to open a casino there.

James Nye, a spokesman for the Gun Lake Tribe, said the Fruitport casino plan is "a very challenging proposal for them to accomplish" because the site was not previously part of the Little River Band's reservation.

"It's a highly controversial issue. Off-reservation gaming is what some call it," said John L. Shagonaby, CEO of the tribe's economic development corporation.

"It's a very, very difficult process," even with the support of politicians and civic leaders that welcome Native American casinos in their cities, said D. K. Sprague, Gun Lake Tribe chairman. He noted that a tribe in Michigan's western Upper Peninsula has been trying for years to open a second casino, this one far from its reservation, in southeast Michigan where the concentrated population would better support a casino.

Larry Romanelli, the leader of the Little River Band, said almost a year ago his tribe planned to open its Fruitport casino in two to four years. Last week he said their plans are "still on track," noting that demolition of the former racetrack grandstand building was nearly complete.

Tribal officials declined to provide any other details of progress toward opening a casino in Fruitport, other than they are "actively pursuing that opportunity."

John Wernet, deputy legal counsel in the governor's office in Lansing, said there are "a number of barriers (the Little River Band) will have to overcome."

The Great Lakes Downs site would have to be placed in trust for the tribe by the federal government, a requirement of the federal law allowing Native American casinos. The process for putting newly acquired tribal land into trust for gaming purposes requires a two-part determination — the first major barrier to a Fruitport casino.

"The Secretary of the Interior must decide it's in the best interest of the tribe and is not detrimental to the local community," said Wernet. "Secondly, the governor has to concur."

Another barrier is a required amendment of the gaming compact the Little River Band made with the state of Michigan in 1998, which allowed them to open the Little River Casino in Manistee in 1999.

Werner said a new policy that surfaced in the final year of the Bush Administration has made the situation even more complicated. In February 2008, former Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced the DOI would no longer take land into trust for tribes to open casinos, unless the land in question is within commuting distance of the tribe’s reservation.

In New York State, three tribes are hoping to build casinos in Sullivan County, although none have reservations close to it. A supporter, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, said in August at a major meeting there that he hopes the commuting distance policy will be eliminated. On the other hand, influential environmentalists are among the opponents to the Sullivan County casino proposals, one of whom is Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

The commuting distance policy apparently led the DOI to refuse to place land in Romulus — near Detroit — in trust for the Hannahville Indian Community, which wants to build a casino there. The tribe is based near Escanaba in the Upper Peninsula, and is the one to which Sprague was referring.

"Little River poses a more interesting case," said Wernet.

Manistee is about 90 miles from Fruitport, but the Little River Band has tribal members living in the Muskegon area and tribal facilities there. Wernet noted the tribe also has established Native American fishing rights on Lake Michigan from Muskegon harbor.

"So they do have ties to that community. Whether or not those ties are sufficient to have the secretary (of the Interior) make an affirmative determination — I can't answer. And of course, we have a new administration in Washington," said Wernet.

"I haven’t seen any indication that (the Obama Administration is) going to reconsider this commuting distance policy — but it is a new administration, so there is a little uncertainty," he added.

The compact made between the state and the Little River Band in 1998 "limits them to a single casino, located within a specified area," which is Manistee and Mason counties, according to Wernet. He said the terms of the compact that was approved by the Legislature allows the governor, the tribe and the Secretary of the Interior to amend it — except in regard to the lands defined as eligible for gaming.

"In order to change their state gaming compact in a way that will authorize them to conduct gaming in Muskegon County, they'd have to go back to the Michigan Legislature, not just the governor," said Wernet.

"None of this is necessarily impossible, but these are significant legal hurdles and they may or may not succeed," he said.

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