Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer hoped for an 11th-hour reprieve but ultimately had to make a decision on Wednesday. It was not the decision that the proponents of a Muskegon casino project hoped for.
Whitmer denied her approval of the plans to build a tribal casino near Fruitport Township in the state. Barring a radical sequence of events, it appears that the tribal entity behind the casino needs to look elsewhere to expand its gaming operations.
Muskegon casino project meets its end
This story stretches back years but appears to have finally seen a conclusion on Wednesday. Wednesday was the deadline for Whitmer to make a decision either against or for the proposed tribal casino.
According to a statement from Whitmer’s office, Whitmer had pleaded for more time.
“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.”
Andrea Flores of WZZM reports that Whitmer sought a second extension and also asked for insight into how the US Department of the Interior‘s process of approving a request for federal recognition for the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians was going.
Interior, however, said that a second extension was not permissible under law and that the decision process for recognition is still incomplete.
While Whitmer said she would reconsider if given a chance, it’s unlikely she will get that for this specific situation. For her, it was somewhat of a lose-lose situation in the bigger picture for Michigan casinos.
Details complicating the situation for Whitmer
The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians‘ plans for the 86 acres near Fruitport Township now needs to change. The particulars of the laws governing this situation mean the Band likely needs to find a different site if it still wants to expand its gambling business.
While the Band owns the plot of land, it is not currently in trust as sovereign territory. Federal law prohibits tribal gambling outside of tribal lands. Thus, the Band cannot offer gaming despite the local support for a casino.
Late last year, leaders from the local community participated in a rally for the project. Flores also reports that local leaders want Whitmer to come up with a replacement for the economic opportunity the casino would have presented.
However, support was not universal. Three other tribal casino operators in the state challenged the Dept. of the Interior’s original approval of a compact amendment. Additionally, leaders from the Detroit area opposed the casino as well.
The Little River Band currently operates a casino near Manistee. Right now, that’s the extent of their gaming operations. The options for moving forward might not be ideal, either.
Few and far between choices for Band now
As previously mentioned, a decision on federal recognition for the Band is still outstanding. Should the DOI eventually decide in favor of that status, that could open up some possibilities.
The Band could then apply to have any parcel of land it owns to be taken into trust for itself by the DOI. Another affirmative action there would theoretically open up the land for gambling. The compact complicates that, however.
Right now, the compact between the Band and Michigan only allows the Band to operate its current casino. Changing that would require approval of an amendment by not only Whitmer but the state legislature as well.
It’s probably not permissible under current law for the legislature and Whitmer to effectively get a “do-over” for the same potential amendment. The Band could try with a different plot of land somewhere else in the state.
That presents its own problems, however. For one thing, a different site could rile the opposition just as it has for the Muskegon County spot. That could complicate approval from the legislature and/or Whitmer.
Additionally, there’s no guarantee that the DOI would approve a compact amendment governing a different site. Thus, the expansion plans for the Band right now are essentially dead. Reviving them looks like a loaded premise as well.