Michigan Tribal Casino Leaders Petition Interior For Review Of Muskegon County Casino Approval

Written By Derek Helling on July 2, 2021
Muskegon County Casino Inquiry July 2021

The opposition to a new tribal casino near Fruitport Township might not be able to bury the project. A Muskegon County casino inquiry request before the US Department of the Interior might prove an effective stalling maneuver, though.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is on the clock to make a decision about the proposed casino. If the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs reviews its earlier decision, that step could make Whitmer’s actions moot.

The backstory of the Muskegon County Casino inquiry

According to Craig Mauger of the Detroit News, leaders of three MI Indigenous peoples’ groups petitioned the Bureau earlier this week. The matter at hand is a December 2020 Bureau decision to greenlight a new Little River Band of Ottawa Indians casino in Muskegon County.

“We believe that this approval was driven by politics and a cynical attempt to politically harm Governor Whitmer because she was a fierce critic of President Trump and campaigned aggressively against his reelection in a state critically important to the Trump’s re-election campaign,” the letter to the Interior’s Inspector General stated.

As far as who that “we” is, that company is composed of representatives of:

  • Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, which owns the Gun Lake Casino close to Wayland
  • Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, which operates Firekeepers Casino near Battle Creek
  • Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, that runs the Soaring Eagle Casino by Mount Pleasant

All three operate other tribal casinos, and they feel a new casino near Fruitport Township would harm their businesses. They want the Interior to conduct an internal probe to assess whether the decision was made out of political gamesmanship rather than on genuine merits.

Naturally, the Interior has no obligation to grant that request. However, doing so would probably satisfy more than just these tribal leaders.

Michigan’s city, county and state officials oppose project, too

Over the course of the past two years, it has probably felt like it’s us vs. the world for the Little River Band. The tribal group that runs a casino near Manistee seems to be the only party truly behind this expansion.

In May, leaders from Detroit and Wayne County voiced opposition. Those local governments have a consistent track record of opposing new tribal casinos near their borders.

Their stated concern again in drafting resolutions is to protect the interests of Detroit’s three commercial casinos. However, the dissent goes higher.

In March, the MI House of Representatives approved an opposition resolution as well. That action carries more weight, because the Muskegon County casino project requires legislative approval.

The current compact between the Little River Band and the state doesn’t provide for the group’s plans. Thus, all parties need to renegotiate the terms.

Whitmer is a big part of that as well. Although she hasn’t indicated which way she is leaning, a probe into last December’s federal approval might take the decision out of her hands.

A further delay could prove detrimental

When former Bureau Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney approved the casino in December, she started a clock. The Little River Band only has one year to get a new compact in place with MI.

If the Interior initiates an investigation, that action could result in Whitmer shelving her review of the situation. From her perspective, if the project doesn’t have federal approval, her opinion on the matter … well, doesn’t matter.

It’s unclear how long such a review would take if the Interior’s Inspector General goes forward with it. A favorable decision for the Little River Band is still no guarantee that other foes of the project will relent.

Should opposition in the MI House continue, even Whitmer’s timely approval wouldn’t be enough to finally let the casino’s developers break ground. Although they insist they are ready to do so, the multi-layered resistance currently keeps that ground untouched.

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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a lead writer for PlayUSA and the manager of BetHer. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.

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