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Gov. Whitmer rejects proposed Muskegon County casino project

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Posted at 2:59 PM, Jun 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-15 22:31:02-04

FRUITPORT TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Governor Gretchen Whitmer has denied the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians’ proposed Muskegon County casino.

She blamed the federal government in her decision.

"The Department of the Interior first needs to decide whether they are providing federal recognition to the neighboring Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians," said Whitmer. "It is critical to have this information before making an informed decision."

RELATED: Deadline for West Michigan tribes requested by Whitmer ignored by Dept. of Interior

The U.S. Department of Interior is considering whether to acknowledge the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians.

Whitmer said if Grand River Band received federal recognition, it may open its own casino in the same area as the Little River Band.

“The two projects, that being Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians federal recognition, and our project, they’re two totally separate projects," said Little River Band Tribal Ogema Larry Romanelli. "One has no bearing on the other. Unfortunately, that’s not how the Governor’s reading it and it’s unfortunate.”

In an interview with FOX17, Romanelli described Whitmer's logic as ill-advised.

He said its not guaranteed that the Department of Interior will grant federal status to Grand River Bands and if they do, any development could take years to move forward.

“I believe that’s she’s been mislead with misinformation," said Romanelli. "This process that I’ve explained, it’s not a short process. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to be a magic win for Grand River because our project was denied. It’s just not going to happen, so I just think it’s very unfortunate all the way around.”

Romanelli says the tribe is considering future uses, but another casino cannot be proposed.

There has been broad, bipartisan local support for the casino.

Derek Thornberry, who works at a virtual reality golf course across the street from where the casino would have been built, said they were disappointed about the decision.

"We were actually kind of surprised," said Thornberry. "We thought maybe she was going to say yes.”

He added, “All of the casinos that are in Michigan, their areas seem to thrive and that was kind of what we would’ve expected, especially in this area. A great location, bring in some tourism.”

“I realize that this non-concurrence is disappointing to the Little River Band and to supporters in the local community, and I am mindful of the significant amount of time and investment that went into this proposal," said Whitmer.

Grand River Bands thanked Whitmer for her decision.

“We applaud Gov. Whitmer for her thoughtfulness and for doing the appropriate due diligence to make this important decision," said Grand River Bands Tribal Ogema Ron Yob. "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."

The department is scheduled to issue a proposed finding on Grand River Bands' status on or before Oct. 12.

MORE: Gov. Whitmer urges Dept. of Interior to decide on Grand River Bands' federal status

RELATED: Future of Muskegon County casino project unclear one month from final deadline

The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi tribal government approves of the decision, noting the opposite would have placed the casino on land not federally recognized as belonging to the Little River Band:

A statement by Chairman Jamie Stuck reads:

“We appreciate Governor Whitmer’s thoughtful deliberation on this issue. While we believed the application did not comply with the negotiated Indian Gaming compacts, the Governor did a very extensive and comprehensive review of the issue.

“She realizes that the request to approve this off-reservation casino would have violated the gaming compacts signed by all of the tribes in Michigan. Her decision maintains the cooperation and balance among the Michigan tribes.

“The Indian Gaming Compacts signed by the tribes over the years have benefited all tribes. More importantly, it has allowed us to provide services, education, and employment for our members. A decision to approve would have upset the delicate balance that exists among the tribes.

“This is the right decision from a legal perspective and also sends a message to all tribes that they must comply with the negotiated compacts as well as the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act."

Candidate for state representative Will Snyder released a statement voicing his disappointment in the decision:

"I am deeply disappointed in the actions of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her staff. All we wished for was a simple signature, and that request proved to be too hard of a decision for her to make. The Muskegon casino project has been decades in the making. The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians did everything right, and this tremendous opportunity for Muskegon County was killed out of worrying about political consequences by folks on the east side of the state.

"I have been advocating for building the Muskegon Casino for my entire professional career because I understand the economic windfall that it would have provided to our area. This would have provided an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 jobs and created nearly 2 million visitors annually to Muskegon County. With our push to increase local tourism, this is a significant blow to our progress.

"Once again, I am frustrated, upset, and disappointed by the actions today of the Governor. I stand in solidarity with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and am committed to doing whatever I can, whether as a private citizen or as your next State Representative, to support the tribe’s efforts. For any other candidate opposing me to declare otherwise is pure rubbish and selfishly for political gain. I vow to always represent the best interests of Greater Muskegon."

The Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians expressed their support for the governor's decision, saying it will bring opportunities for development in the area.

Rep. Greg VanWoerkom calls Governor Whitmer's decision a "missed opportunity," saying:

“I am deeply disappointed in the governor’s decision. The project has broad support throughout the region and would have further made Muskegon County a destination while creating thousands of local jobs boosting economic growth. It is a missed opportunity that hurts our community and state.

“The federal government approved this project, and the state should approve it as well. The due diligence was completed and no more questions needed to be answered.”

Sen. Jon Bumstead called Wednesday a "sad day" for the Little River Band, releasing the following statement:

“Today is a sad day for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, Muskegon residents and those of the surrounding area as their governor regrettably chose to deny a longsuffering casino project that had virtually unanimous support from here all the way to Washington, D.C.

“Over the years, the Legislature and governor have worked together to promote initiatives to bring and keep large corporations to our state and to provide good-paying jobs for Michiganders, even if that meant investing significant amounts of taxpayer dollars to get the job done. This time, with this casino project, Gov. Whitmer solely had the opportunity to create 3,000 good-paying jobs with a simple stroke of her pen, and it would not have cost taxpayers one cent. It would seem as though she would rather spend hardworking people’s money than help them earn it.

“The fact remains, our residents are struggling right now to afford everyday essentials like gas and groceries. The 3,000 jobs this casino would have provided would have gone a long way toward helping West Michigan families, businesses and local governments.

“This setback aside, Muskegon still matters. Gov. Whitmer, shame on you.”

FOX 17 will continue to update it as more details become available.

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