FRUITPORT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — After Gov. Gretchen Whitmer refused to sign off on plans to create a tribal casino near Muskegon in June, the casino may now have a second chance.
The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians worked for more than 12 years to get through the process of getting the casino approved. But in June of this year, Whitmer would not sign off on the project because of a pending decision on whether the Department of Interior would recognize another tribe, the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians.
At the time, Whitmer said her decision hinged on knowing whether the Department of the Interior will grant federal recognition to that tribe, saying that was “critical” to her “making an informed decision.”
In a Wednesday release, Fruitport Township said the DOI has now invited the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians to resubmit an application for the casino, something the township described as “an unusual twist.”
“The Department of the Interior has been very clear in their letters saying that they support this project for the benefit of the Little River Band and the whole area,” Fruitport Township Supervisor Todd Dunham said in the release.
He said the DOI had originally approved the casino in 2020 and again in 2021, while understanding the “territorial claims” of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians. According to Dunham, the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians was issued a four-month extension in an Oct. 4 letter from the DOI.
“There is nothing to suggest a Preliminary Finding will come anytime soon,” the release says.
“This letter is the decision the Governor said she was waiting on. We now have it. The public supports this project. Every surrounding municipality supports this project. Three presidential administrations and two previous governors have supported it no matter the political party. Everyone knows it would be a huge economic engine for the lakeshore,” Dunham said.
Larry Romanelli, tribal ogema for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, said the opportunity to submit another application means a lot not only to his tribe, but to the Muskegon-area and West Michigan as a whole.
“We’ve had overwhelming support from the community for these years,” Romanelli said. “The first package that we submitted was very good. It was one of the best that the Department of Interior had ever received, and because of the outpouring of support for this, (the DOI) recognize it as a very good deal.”
The project still needs the governor’s approval. Romanelli said he’s not heard back from Whitmer’s office yet but is still considering submitting a new application and feels “confident” about the future of the project.
“It provides everything that Michigan needs. We talk about jobs … 1,500 to 4,000 jobs in West Michigan is huge. When you talk about the economic development, again, that’s huge. All the ancillary businesses that would benefit from this, and then you talk about how we supply money to the state, to the local government, to the tribe, and it’s a win-win-win.”
Plans for the project include a casino and 220-room hotel. It would create 1,500 construction jobs and 1,500 full-time jobs, the tribe says.
Although the first application was a 12-year process, the new one would take a fraction of that time because much of the information submitted for the first application is still relevant. The tribe hopes to have the governor’s support this time around.
— News 8’s Rachel Van Gilder contributed to this report.