FRUITPORT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — A project to build a tribal casino in Muskegon has been in the works for about a decade. Now, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians has made a large step forward in making it happen.

Great Lakes Downs’ last day at the races came in November 2007. Since then, the property southeast of Muskegon where the racetrack once occupied has been reclaimed by nature.

“We’ve been anticipating it and it’s something that we really need in this area,” Rep. Terry Sabo, D-Muskegon, said.

The casino and 220-room hotel would be an economic boon to Fruitport Township, more than doubling property values in the immediate area at Harvey Street and Hile Road. It would also create thousands of jobs in a county with one of the highest unemployment rates in Michigan.

“When I look at the amount of revenue that this is going to generate, not only for the state of Michigan but also for the local units of government, I think that’s really beneficial at a time like this,” Sabo said.

A rendering showing the plan for a casino at the former site of Great Lakes Downs in Fruitport Township.

The $180 million project finally reached a behind-the-scenes milestone this month when the Bureau of Indian Affairs has pushed through a Final Environmental Impact Statement for federal approval.

“For the last 10 years, this is what we’ve been waiting for,” said Larry Romanelli, ogema of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.

Approval is expected in the next two months.

“Once it comes back, it goes to the state, which is the House, the Senate and the governor,” Romanelli explained.

Even though the approval process has been slow, the extra time to plan has had its benefits.

“We are not at the place where we can’t change the design to maybe allow extra aisle width or special ventilation or things like that,” Romanelli said. “So this might be one of the first casinos that’s built for pandemics, so it comes at a good time.”

In the community, excitement is growing.

“They used to say, ‘When’s your casino coming? When’s your casino coming?’ Now they say, ‘When is our casino coming?'” Romanelli said. “(I) put in a lot of hours to get to this point, and I don’t plan on slowing down here.”

Barring unforeseen delays, the tribe hopes to have casino finished in the next three years.