Gun Lake Casino under way

January 25, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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WAYLAND TOWNSHIP — Their opponents kept upping the ante, but the Gun Lake Tribe would not fold.

Finally, after almost 10 years of legal battles and heavyweight opposition from several directions, a court ruling allowed the Gun Lake Tribe of Pottawatomi Indians to begin construction in September of its long-delayed casino near U.S. 131 in Wayland Township, about 25 miles south of downtown Grand Rapids.

The long delay caused a reduction in the size of the new casino because of the recession and the banking industry severely limiting access to credit. There might be a small silver lining in the delay in the form of more competitive pricing in the construction industry. Leaders of the Gun Lake Tribe said the casino will be about half the size originally planned, but it is still expected to create about 600 new permanent casino jobs, plus other new jobs, long term and short term, due to the ripple effect.

Tribal leaders said they will invest $157 million in an 83,000-square-foot casino with 1,200 slot machines, 36 table games, an entertainment lounge and a restaurant seating 300. The structure is being designed to expand if and when an improvement in the economy warrants it and finance markets allow it.

The average job at the casino will be worth about $40,000 in wages and benefits, according to the tribe. It expects the casino to generate approximately $9.1 million annually to the state revenue sharing fund and about $2.3 million annually to the local revenue sharing board. The casino is also expected to generate about 60,000 room rentals annually at hotels in the region.

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 proposed casino was also fought by a Grand Rapids ad hoc group that counted businessman Peter Secchia among its leaders, plus a lobbying effort funded by individuals connected with the Blue Chip Casino in northwest Indiana.

A "small handful" of the 3,000 businesses and individuals that are members of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce dropped their membership when the Gun Lake Tribe was victorious, according to a chamber official, for fear they would not get business contracts related to the new casino.

Another aftershock was felt in the Muskegon area and in Manistee. About 60 miles away from the Gun Lake casino site is the former Great Lakes Downs horse racing track in Fruitport Township, just outside of Muskegon. The property is now owned by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, which has been operating its successful Little River Casino just outside Manistee for several years. The Little River Band has been clear in its plans for the former race track since it bought in July 2008: another casino.

But the Gun Lake Tribe has said it is not worried about competition from a Fruitport casino, which may not open for years — if ever. The problem: 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 Gun Lake 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.

"I don't want to say it's impossible … but awfully difficult," said Sprague.

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