Finish line in sight for Muskegon County casino project

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FRUITPORT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — The group behind a long awaited Muskegon County casino says the project is inching closer to the finish line.

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians bought the old Great Lakes Downs racetrack near Harvey Street and Hile Road with plans of transforming the property into a casino and 220-room hotel. For the last 12 years, the $180 million project has been stuck in limbo while awaiting federal approval

“I was in my 50s when this project started. I am now in my 70s, so it’s been a long project,” said Tribal Ogema Larry Romanelli.

At the casino site, there is a sign thanking county residents for their continued support. Builders have not broken ground yet. Romanelli says the tribe’s casino in Manistee did not take quite as long to be completed but the project did span several years. 

“Behind the scenes, there’s been constant work on this. The tribe has invested a lot of money on this, millions of dollars, and we’re now at I’d say the three yard line,” Romanelli said.

Romanelli says some design plans are still subject to change due to COVID-19. 

The casino recently received federal approval for the project. It is now awaiting state approval. Romanelli says they’ve received support from every municipality in the county.

“It’s really time to move this to the final stages,” Romanelli said. “That means that the governor signs off and the Legislature also needs to sign off, and we really need to get this thing moving. We are in some terms shovel-ready.”

The project has been garnering excitement since plans were first announced. The casino is expected to bring thousands of jobs to the county. 

“I think it will really help because we’ll kind of have two waves of jobs for the casino project. First, the construction and development of the facility itself, and then for the management and operations of the facility,” said Bob Lukens who is the director of Visit Muskegon.

Lukens says the opportunities are needed more than ever following the pandemic.

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians says it is confident it will get the necessary approvals soon.

“We are hopeful now. Because of the pandemic, it’s going to take two years to get this thing up and running. The need for jobs is even greater. Everybody knows that bad that’s why there’s so much support,” Romanelli said.

Romanelli says if the governor signs off in support of this project, it will head to the Legislature next. The tribe is hoping to welcome the first customers in about two years.


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