GR Chamber: We are not foes of new casino
Last week's Business Journal report on the Gun Lake Casino ("Gun Lake Casino has foes at bay") hit a nerve at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.
"I thought the headline was misleading in the way that it portrayed the Grand Rapids and Holland chambers. We aren't foes," said the GR chamber president/CEO Jeanne Englehart.
Several years ago, while the Gun Lake Casino proposal was being debated heavily in the region, the Grand Rapids and Holland chambers came out in opposition to it. The Gun Lake Tribe then announced that companies that are members of those chambers would not be considered as vendors/suppliers for the casino. Tribe members generally reaffirmed that policy last week, although they conceded that such decisions would ultimately be made in the best interest of the tribe and local community.
The Business Journal report included mention of the extensive opposition to the Gun Lake Casino by West Michigan groups and individuals, plus a lobbying effort against the casino and two other Native American casinos that was funded by individuals connected with the Blue Chip Casino in northwest Indiana.
Englehart, who has led the Grand Rapids chamber since 2004, said that board's majority votes in opposition to the Gun Lake Casino took place before she became its head. She said the original opposition was based on an economic study that indicated "a casino in the region would divert entertainment dollars outside of the city and would damage the city, because we've put a lot of money into our infrastructure."
"I wasn’t here. I can't speak to what was behind that, other than the fact that it was a study and it was based on economic" factors.
In April 2005, the GR chamber had representatives of both the tribe and MichGO, an organization that tried to block the casino, present their cases to the chamber board, according to Englehart. At the conclusion of that meeting, the board "made the decision not to pursue any other action," she said, noting that "some people think the casino is not a good idea, and other people think it's a great idea."
"We haven't discussed it since 2005," she said.
Englehart is concerned, however, that the Gun Lake Tribe still has a policy to exclude GR and Holland chamber members from vendor/supplier consideration.
"I have members saying, 'We are dropping our chamber membership because we want to bid on work with the casino and we were told we can't be a member of the chamber,'" said Englehart. She said "a small handful" of members have dropped their membership.
As for the Gun Lake Casino, she said, "It happened. It's done. It's over. If it's built, it's built. I can't change the past, nor can they. I'm trying to look at the future. We have a fabulous group of members that could add value to their process."
The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce has slightly less than 3,000 members, according to Englehart.