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Muskegon ‘shocked’ by Whitmer rejection of casino project

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Following Whitmer’s rejection of a Muskegon-area casino project, some found the decision “disheartening.” (Shutterstock)

After 12 and a half years and more than $30 million invested by the Little River Band Ottawa Indians, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer denied a request this week to build a casino in Muskegon County.

In a statement Wednesday, Whitmer said she was hesitant to give the go ahead for the off-reservation casino even though it had the approval of the federal government.

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Whitmer said she was concerned that the location of the proposed casino was close to the site of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, which is attempting to gain federal recognition as a tribe. If they are successful, the Grand River Bands could also want a casino in the area.

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“Without that information (about whether the Grand River Bands’ application for federal recognition will be approved), I am unable to concur at this time and remain disappointed in the (U.S.) Department (of the Interior)’s lack of flexibility in this process.”

The deadline for Whitmer to make a decision on the casino was Thursday.

Larry Romanelli, leader of the Little River Band Ottawa Indians said he thinks Whitmer was misinformed about the project, stating the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians’ petition for federal approval has nothing to do with the casino project. He said he felt frustrated and disappointed.

“The whole community is going to suffer from a no decision,” he said. 

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians invested more than $30 million into the project, and the casino was expected to provide more than 3,000 jobs, Todd Dunham, Fruitport Township’s town supervisor, said. 

In a letter to Secretary of the Interior Debra Haaland, Whitmer requested the deadline extension because the determination “could frustrate the Grand River Bands.” The letter said she wants the decision on their recognition to be made in case they want to open a casino in the area. 

Muskegon Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo said he was frustrated with how long it took Whitmer to make a decision about the development.

The project was originally approved by former President Donald Trump’s administration in December 2020, but the project must also be approved by the state. Whitmer was originally supposed to make a decision by December 2021, but she requested and was given a six-month extension by federal officials.  

“I’m like the rest of the folks in Muskegon — disbelief, total shock, after all these years, millions of dollars invested, that she decided not to sign off for reasons we don’t know,” Muskegon Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, said. 

During a speech on the Senate floor Thursday, Bumstead called Whitmer’s rejection “shameful.” 

“Your denial of this project instantly killed 3,000 good-paying jobs in west Michigan,” he said. “You would rather protect the interests of your supporters in Southeast Michigan and play politics rather than upgrade new economic opportunities for families in west Michigan.”

When he heard the news Dunham said, “it was a “blow.”

“It was like I got punched in the stomach,” Dunham told Bridge. 

He said he’s not spoken to anyone in the area who agrees with Whitmer’s decision.

Dunham was baffled by Whitmer citing the Grand River Bands petition for federal recognition as a reason for her rejection of the casino project. He said it would likely take another 12-18 years before the Grand River Bands could have a realistic casino project, even after becoming federally recognized. 

“I’m not buying any of this,” Dunham said of Whitmer’s reasoning. “I think this was all smoke and mirrors.”

Romanelli was supposed to meet with Whitmer last week, but the governor's office pushed the meeting back until Wednesday afternoon. When the meeting was originally scheduled, he was under the impression Whitmer had not yet made up her mind. By the time they actually met, she had. 

“I wanted to make some last minute discussions with her,” he said. “I was left without being able to speak to her about the project. That was a little disheartening.” 

Muskegon historically was a more industrial area of the state, although more recently it has become more tourist-centric. The casino was expected to help with further development of the county by increasing tourism and investments in hotels. 

Muskegon Heights City Manager Troy Bell told reporters Thursday that the area had been “underinvested” for years. He said the governor’s rejection means the opportunities for tourism revenues “virtually went out the window.” 

“The message I believe (the governor’s decision) is sending … is that Muskegon doesn’t matter,” Bell told reporters. 

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In her letter of non-concurrence, Whitmer said she would “welcome the opportunity to revisit this question” after the Department of Interior acts on the Grand River Bands’ acknowledgement petition. 

Romanelli said, “If the no stands, probably, the project is dead.” 

There are 24 tribal casinos in the state, according to the 2021 Michigan Gaming Control Board report. 

Romanelli said the project was supported by the administrations of former presidents Barack Obama, Trump and current President Joe Biden. It was also backed by former Michigan governors Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, and Rick Snyder, a Republican.  

Julia Forrest and Stella Yu contributed to this report.

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