Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Renew Push to Build Casino in Muskegon County

The State of Michigan and the U.S. Government may not agree on a Muskegon casino, but that isn’t stopping the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians from pursuing what seemed like a dead deal.

The tribe is going forward with plans to resubmit an application to the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI), which had previously approved the plan from the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. The Feds approved a plan for a casino on non-tribal land in Muskegon, pending approval from the State of Michigan. But Gov. Gretchen Whitmer failed to sign off on the project in June, citing the possibility of another Michigan tribe’s federal recognition approval pending as an obstacle.

Whitmer was worried that by approving the Muskegon casino for the Little River Band, it might interfere with plans the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians may have for a casino in the region.

Proposed Casino Would be in Fruitport Township

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians presented a plan to build a casino and hotel located at the intersection of U.S. 31 and I-96 in Fruitport Township, just south of Muskegon. The project was estimated to cost $180 million. Because it was proposed for non-tribal lands, it must be approved by the Governor’s office.

The DOI seems to be suggesting that if the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians presents a plan that has a shorter development plan, it might satisfy Whitmer and the State of Michigan because recognition of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians is not apparently imminent.

The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians first applied for federal recognition in 2004. A deadline for a decision on that application has been extended at least twice, and the DOI has recently ruled that it has been moved to February 2023. The application has been stuck in the Office of Federal Acknowledgment for years, which exists within the DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. The State of Michigan does recognize the tribe.

Tribes seek federal recognition for several reasons, but primarily to have status for tribal government-to-tribal government partnerships, and access to federal dollars for assistance to tribal members.

“Should the Grand River bands obtain federal recognition they may wish to open a gaming facility of their own in the same general area as the Little River Band’s proposed project,” Gov. Whitmer said in a statement earlier this year.

Support for Little River Band Casino Project is Big

Fruitport Township Supervisor Todd Dunham is emblematic of the support for the Little River Band’s proposal in the area.

“The DOI does extensive analysis and the Governor’s office should be able to rely on their conclusions and recommendations,” Dunham said in a statement in October. “The DOI said they have never seen a project with so much support. The idea that this interferes with another tribe is just a smokescreen.”

“We’ve had overwhelming support from the community for these years,” Larry Romanelli, the Tribal Ogema for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, told WoodTV News last week. “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.”

According to MLive, the Little River Band has spent “nearly 14 years and $30 million developing and refining its proposal.” Public opinion seems strongly in favor of a casino in the Muskegon area. The closest casino is Gun Lake Casino, in Wayland.

According to the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, the casino project would lead to 1,500 construction jobs, 1,500 full-time jobs, and as much as $3 million in annual revenue for municipalities in and around the Fruitport Township casino/resort. The development calls for a 220-room hotel, which could attract tourists to the region, which is not far from the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Other reasons Whitmer may have for blocking the proposal are unclear. The Democrat has traditionally supported gaming, online casinos and sports betting, and the sovereignty of Michigan Native American tribes throughout her administration.

Michigan legalized online sports betting in 2019, and launched it in early 2021, following delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since January 2021, the state has seen more than $7 billion in total sports betting handle and $28.9 million in taxes paid due to sports betting activity. While online gaming has been wildly successful, casinos and retail sportsbooks continue to do well in the Great Lakes State.

About the Author

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is a writer and contributor for Michigan Sharp. He is an accomplished author, who has written three books about sports. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball. He isn't far from the Michigan action, residing near Lake Michigan, where he lives with his daughters.