FRUITPORT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will not sign off plans to create a tribal casino near Muskegon.
In a Wednesday statement, Whitmer blamed her “non-concurrence” on the federal Department of the Interior, saying the agency would not extend the approval deadline nor provide information on a pending decision on whether to recognize another tribe nearby.
The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians has long wanted to turn the site of the former Great Lakes Downs Racetrack in Fruitport Township into a casino and hotel. It had painstakingly guided the project through the federal approval process spanning three presidential administrations.
“Very disappointing for a number of reasons,” Little River Band Tribal Ogema Larry Romanelli said of the governor’s decision. “We’ve spent over 12 years in the process. We’ve done everything right, correctly. We’ve submitted all the proper paperwork and we’ve invested quite a bit of money.”
He said the tribe had spent some $30 million on the project and pointed out it had strong local support. Fruitport Township told News 8 earlier this week that it stood to lose more than $2 million if the project didn’t go through because it had already invested in infrastructure to facilitate it. Supporters had hoped the casino would create 3,000 jobs.
“But the most disappointing part is the reason for rejecting our project,” Romanelli said.
Fruitport Township Supervisor Todd Dunham says they’ve already spent $2 million with the expectation the casino would be built on the site.
“We put up another water tower to show that we could supply this big of a development,” Dunham said.
Whitmer said her decision hinged on knowing whether the Department of the Interior will grant federal recognition to the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians in the area, saying that was “critical” to her “making an informed decision.”
“I asked for additional time so the Department could do their part and give me information I needed to make this important decision,” Whitmer stated. “Without that information, I am unable to concur at this time and remain disappointed in the Department’s lack of flexibility in this process.”
The feds had already granted one extension for Whitmer, setting the deadline for her to sign off on the casino for Thursday. In a June 6 letter (PDF) released by Whitmer’s office Wednesday, the Department of the Interior said by regulation, it could not issue a second one.
It said the pandemic had slowed the recognition process for the Grand River Bands and that it was also waiting on more information from the tribe. As a result, it said, “we are unable to share information on the likelihood of an outcome.”
The Grand River Bands said the feds expect to release proposed findings on its petition for recognition by Oct. 15. In a statement Wednesday, it praised Whitmer’s decision:
“We applaud Gov. Whitmer for her thoughtfulness and for doing the appropriate due diligence to make this important decision. With this decision now made, the Grand River Bands will finalize our federal recognition with the potential of pursuing economic development activities in the Muskegon area. On behalf of our hundreds of tribal members, we applaud Gov. Whitmer for issuing a nonconcurrence decision while our petition for federal recognition is still a pending matter.”Ron Yob, chairman of the Grand River Bands
Romanelli, the Little River Band ogema, argued the casino plan and the Grand River Bands’ request for recognition have nothing to do with one another and that the governor’s reasoning was therefore “incorrect.”
“…The two are absolutely separate,” he said. “To disregard that (the Little River Band’s careful planning package) in hopes of a tribe that is unfederally recognized and has been seeking federal recognition for a large number of years in hopes that they may someday want to put in a casino just doesn’t make sense.”
“We did the right things the right way and we were hoping that right was might, but unfortunately, it doesn’t look that way,” he added.
State Rep. Terry Sabo, D-Muskegon, was also disappointed by the outcome.
“We were looking at that as potentially being a destination point for people coming from all over the state and potentially out of the country,” Sabo said.
—News 8’s Kyle Mitchell contributed to this report.