Muskegon County in Michigan has long been the site of a proposed Little River Band casino. Once again, whether the gaming facility near Fruitport Township will actually come to fruition involves Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Leadership for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians has shared that they are trying to get a face-to-face meeting with Whitmer. If that goes according to the tribe’s plan, there could be more work for Whitmer soon.
Little River Band casino plans could materialize again
About 10 months after Whitmer nixed the tribe’s plans for a second Michigan casino, that issue is again on her agenda. According to Drew Ellis of PlayMichigan, Little River Band Tribal Ogema Larry Romanelli is seeking an audience with the governor.
“I have a call in to the governor to meet with her to see what her thoughts are now,” Romanelli told Ellis. “Throughout the last year, that’s been the holdup, waiting for the federal recognition. One shouldn’t really depend on the other, but I understand her point. But now the determination has been brought forward. I think that we’re pretty much ready to go in my mind anyway. I’m looking for the governor to approve the project.”
To understand Romanelli’s comments, it’s necessary to revisit the background of the situation. The events that led up to Romanelli’s call to Whitmer go back years and involve a completely different Indigenous Peoples Group.
Territorial claims and governmental determinations
As Romanelli alluded to, the catalyst that led to his call to Whitmer was a recent determination by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). However, that determination had nothing to do with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.
Rather that pertained to the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians. That group had applied for federal recognition as a sovereign entity. The BIA rejected that request in March. As a result, the Grand River Bands’ claim to land near Fruitport Township is not an obstacle to the Little River Band plans.
Had the BIA granted the Grand River Bands federal recognition, the BIA might have taken land into trust for that group. It’s possible that from there, the Grand River Bands could have negotiated its own gaming compact and operated a Michigan tribal casino itself.
For the time being, though, there are no concerns about having two casinos in such close proximity to each other. Whitmer cited saturation concerns when she originally rejected the Little River Band’s plan for a casino in June 2022.
It’s unclear if Whitmer will be any more inclined to approve such a proposal now. The Grand River Bands still have time to appeal the BIA decision. Failing that, an act of the U.S. Congress could grant the tribe federal recognition. Whitmer might still prefer to wait until the Grand River Bands exhaust all options.
That’s exactly what Romanelli likely wants to ascertain in their upcoming meeting.
Whitmer’s options moving forward
There doesn’t seem to be much upside to not meeting with Romanelli, so a meeting seems likely to happen at some point. That doesn’t necessarily mean Romanelli will come away from the encounter satisfied, however.
Not much has changed for Whitmer from last June. Then, she was entrenched between a rock and a hard place. If she approved the Little River Band casino project, she would have greatly handicapped the Grand River Bands‘ future in Muskegon County had the BIA granted recognition.
The BIA probably would not have approved a gaming compact for the Grand River Bands with a Little River Band casino under construction so close to the Grand River Bands’ territory. At the same time, the Little River Band project has seen an unnecessary delay so far.
As Romanelli added when speaking with Ellis:
“When she rejected that first package, it does give us a few more hoops to go through in that we have to resubmit another package. The Department of the Interior has stated that it won’t be a lengthy process once we resubmit that package. We have plans whenever the governor gives us a green light from the state to go ahead and resubmit.”
As long as the Grand River Bands’ appeal is viable, though, Whitmer runs the same risk of unintentionally harming the group before it even gets going. At the same time, every month that goes by becomes costly for the Little River Band’s project. The tribe has already been in a holding pattern there for about eight years.
Barring a successful appeal by the Grand River Bands, Whitmer will probably give the Little River Band the approval it needs to proceed. She might wait until that appeal terminates, though. In the meantime, the Little River Band probably has nothing to do but hurry up and wait.