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'It's very disappointing': Whitmer says no to Little River Band of Ottawa Indian’s casino proposal

Some community leaders feel let down after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Wednesday that she would not approve a local tribe's plan to build a casino in Fruitport.

FRUITPORT, Mich. — The proposed $180 million casino that would have been built on the former site of the Great Lakes Downs Race Track in Fruitport has been denied by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The federal government placed the land in trust in December of 2020, which began a one-year countdown for state approval by Gov. Whitmer.

After an extension to the deadline was given in December of 2021, Gov. Whitmer had until June 16 to make her decision on whether or not to approve the proposed casino plan.

Whitmer asked for another extension, but was denied and on Wednesday, June 15, she made her final decision.

“Today, after the U.S. Department of the Interior refused to extend a critical deadline for this decision or offer information on a separate tribal recognition decision currently pending before the Department, I am communicating my non-concurrence on the Little River Band of Ottawa Indian’s proposal to open an off-reservation casino in Fruitport Township," Whitmer wrote in a statement.

Whitmer says that she was unable to approve the project because the US Department of the Interior (DOI) failed to provide "critical information" to her that would be needed in the decision-making process.

She notes that the DOI refused her request for another extension on the decision and has not been given a response to a federal recognition inquiry for the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians.

"This has placed me in an impossible position. Despite my best efforts to get answers from DOI with respect to the pending Grand River Bands' acknowledgment petition, I am left without information critical to my decision on the Little River Band's two-part decision," Whitmer continued in the letter to the DOI. "I am unable to concur in the Little River Band's two-part determination because of the remaining uncertainty created by the Grand River Bands' pending acknowledgement petition."

The DOI says they were unable to issue another extension due to regulations saying that only a single extension was possible. The DOI also said in a letter to Whitmer that the petition for federal acknowledgment of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians had been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic and that the petition was still being considered.

Whitmer says that she is still willing to consider the proposal in the future if possible.

"Once DOI has acted on the Grand River Bands' acknowledgment petition, I would welcome the opportunity to revisit this question and ask that you find a way for me to do so," Whitmer said in closing in her letter to Secretary Haaland.

Larry Romanelli, Ogema of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians shared this statement: 

 “Our Tribal members are absolutely devastated that Governor Whitmer has decided to not approve our casino development in Fruitport Township. 

This project would have created and supported 3,000 jobs for Tribal members and families in the community along with providing funds for healthcare and housing.  

Our tribe has worked hand-in-hand with the Muskegon Community for the past twelve years to gain approval from the Federal Government and State Government.  

Words cannot express how thankful we are for our community’s support and the disappointment we feel for them. Our tribe is proud that over the last 12 years, we did everything right. 

The project has been supported by the Obama, Trump and Biden Presidential administrations along with the Granholm and Snyder Gubernatorial administrations. 

We received approvals from the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

We met all the criteria required for approval. And while we disagree completely with Governor Whitmer’s decision, we respect that she has the authority to make it. 

For now, The Muskegon Casino Project has concluded.”

Muskegon Heights Mayor Walter Watt says he now wants to hear from the governor on a plan to replace this project, which would've created thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue for Muskegon County.

Fruitport Township Supervisor Todd Dunham says not building a casino on this former race track means losing out on other development. 

Visit Muskegon Director Bob Lukens says this decision also means the area is missing out on more tourism. 

The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi tribal government said they applaud Gov. Whitmer's decision. 

“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,” said Jamie Stuck, Chairman of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi tribal government. “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.”

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