Gun Lake Casino Nears launch date

December 20, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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The exterior is virtually complete, slots are being installed and wannabe card dealers and slot machine attendants are being interviewed at a temporary hiring hall across the road from the new Gun Lake Casino, which is expected to open in mid-February, next to U.S. 131 at the Bradley exit 25 miles south of downtown Grand Rapids.

Meanwhile, Wayland Township, in which the tiny Allegan County community of Bradley is located, is preparing plans to put in its own public water and sewer system to accommodate the development anticipated around the casino.

Richard St. Jean, who will be the opening general manager of the casino, said the exterior of the facility is about 95 percent complete.

St. Jean is also president of the Native American Gaming division of Station Casinos, a Las Vegas-based casino management company that will be operating the Gun Lake Casino for the Gun Lake Tribe of Pottawatomi Indians.

The Gun Lake Casino will have more than 1,400 slots and 28 table games, plus a 225-seat café and a food court. The tribe is not currently planning to build a hotel there, said St. Jean.

The nearly 10 years of legal attempts to block the casino — including efforts by business interests based in Grand Rapids — finally ended in a victory for the tribe in 2009, just as the Great Recession was leveling the economic landscape. Because of that, it will be about half the size originally proposed years ago, but designed for expansion.

“It’s a super location,” said St. Jean.

The 83,000-square-foot, $165 million casino, built on the foundation of a former industrial plant, looks nothing at all like a factory. The impressive two-story façade is clearly visible from the expressway, particularly the northbound lanes.

St. Jean said there are three primary competitors to the Gun Lake Casino, all of them owned and operated by Native American tribes: The Four Winds Casino Resort in Michigan’s far southwest corner at New Buffalo, the Firekeepers Casino near Battle Creek, and Soaring Eagle in Mt. Pleasant.

“We split the Kalamazoo market with Firekeepers, obviously,” said St. Jean, but the Gun Lake Casino’s proximity to both the Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo population centers is clearly an advantage. Mt. Pleasant is 84 miles north of Grand Rapids.

“We’re kind of right in the dead center of those three” casinos, said St. Jean.

The Gun Lake Casino is working on hiring about 750 employees and is leasing a former trucking company building directly across 129th Street, where applicants are interviewed for casino jobs. Individuals who have worked at Firekeepers have applied at Gun Lake, said St. Jean.

“We continue to look for dealers and slot attendants,” said St. Jean. “And we also need cocktail waitresses.”

Applicants for the slot attendant and waitresses jobs don’t necessarily have to have experience, but applicants for the card dealer jobs must have had some experience. Mainly, said St. Jean, “we’re looking for friendly, outgoing people.”

There is a little new development activity going on now near the casino, but probably not as much as might be expected, mainly because there is no public water and sewer service in the Bradley area.

The Gun Lake tribe has already installed its own well and sewage treatment plant near the casino.

Wayland Township Supervisor Roger VanVolkinburg said the city of Wayland, which is about three and a half miles away, has municipal water/sewer but it is at capacity or near it. Gun Lake, a resort community, has a system but it is seven miles away and nearing capacity.

The township decided to build its own system, having had lots of time to think about it while various litigants stalled the Gun Lake tribe’s casino plans. VanVolkinburg said they are studying three different locations for a treatment plant and water tower, with each option estimated to cost from $16 million to $18 million. That is for a “phase one” project that will cover the Bradley area, extending a few hundred yards to the west to include the U.S. 131/129th Street interchange next to the casino.

“For phase one, we just want to get enough of it up and running so that, when the tribe is ready (to expand), they’ll have a place to hook up to without having to expand their system,” said VanVolkinburg.

Phase two will be an extension in the near future to new development in the Selkirk Lake area, he said.

The township applied for federal stimulus funds, said VanVolkinburg, but were turned down because “they said they were looking for bigger projects than ours.”

The USDA Rural Development program will fund improvements to water/sewer systems but not new projects from scratch, he said.

The township also contacted the Michigan Economic Development Corp. but were told the MEDC funds projects that lead to new industrial jobs, “not commercial or service jobs,” according to VanVolkinburg.

VanVolkinburg said the township is considering a bond to pay for the construction, but does not intend to tax township property owners to pay off the bond, “so we’re looking at other sources of funding.”

That source is ultimately the casino itself. The compact between the tribe and the state includes an agreement by the tribe to share some revenue — 2 percent of the gross take from its slot machines — with the local community and county to cover expenses driven by the presence of the casino, such as police and fire protection and a water-sewer system.

“Obviously, we wouldn’t need it without them,” said VanVolkinburg.

The revenue sharing — an estimated $2 million or more per year — will be in lieu of property tax, which is not paid by the tribe because it is a sovereign nation, according to VanVolkinburg.

He said the township doesn’t plan to start the water/sewer system construction until the casino actually opens. “That seemed to be everybody’s hold up when we were looking at different funding options. They said, ‘Well, you know …’ It was all crystal ball at that time.”

“I’m sure once that (casino) opens, then people will start believing it has really happened,” he said.

“We get calls all the time from developers wanting to develop, but it’s tough to get funding until something happens down there.”

The calls township officials are getting most are in regard to potential development of hotels and motels, he said.

There are also calls coming in from people other than real estate developers: real gamblers.

“People are very excited,” said Denise Behm, executive director of the Wayland Area Chamber of Commerce. She estimates she has received a half-dozen calls from people wanting to know when the casino will open and about accommodations in the area.

Behm recently got a call from a retired lady who lives in Grand Rapids, who enjoys going to casinos occasionally for entertainment.

“She said she is looking for a smaller town to live in than Grand Rapids,” said Behm.  “She wants to get out of the hustle and bustle. A town that’s close to some entertainment that she enjoys, such as a casino, but also has some senior transport and senior housing.”

Wayland has those, she said.

“We have everything you need in a small area. You know: post office, stores, doctors, dentists,” said Behm.

And pretty soon a nearby casino, too.

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