In the next step towards opening up a casino in Fruitport operated by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians (“Little River Band”), the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs held  a meeting on December 12, 2018 to receive public comments on the draft environmental impact statement it published in November.  Members of the public as well as representatives from the Little River Band  flocked to the Fruitport Middle School auditorium to have their voices heard. 

The casino, estimated to cost $180 million, is proposed to be built at the northeast intersection of South Harvey Street and Ellis Road south of I-96, the former location of the Great Lakes Downs racetrack.  The Little River Band purchased the property in 2008.  Current plans call for a 149,069-square-foot casino, a 220 room hotel, 1,700 slot machines, 35 table games, dining facilities, an entertainment center and parking.  The BIA’s report evaluated and detailed steps needed to mitigate impact on geology and soils, public services, hazardous wastes, transportation, water resources, noise and other factors.  The BIA’s recommendations include limiting construction activity to 7:00 am to 11:00 pm, testing groundwater if utilizing wells, and specifying training for prospective employees to identify and provide resources for gambling addiction.

53 people registered and gave public comments on the project, with 50 of the 53 speakers conveying support for the proposed casino.  Several speakers expressed approval of the Little River Band’s estimations of 1,200 new full-time jobs with an average wage of $45,000.  Little River Band Councilman Ron Pete also noted that their employee benefits are generous: “We provide tremendous benefits for our staff.”  In speaking of the Little River Casino Resort in Manistee, which is owned and operated by the Little River Band of which Mr. Pete was the former general manager, he stated: “No one ever paid a penny for their insurance.  I can proudly say that my insurance as general manager was the same as the dishwashers.”

Representatives from a wide variety of groups expressed support, including Fruitport Township, Fruitport Community Schools, Muskegon Community College, Muskegon County, the city of Norton Shores, West Michigan trade unions, local businesses and tribal members.  Fruitport Superintendent of Schools Bob Szymoniak stated: “The impact of this casino project on the success of business and industry in the Muskegon area and the lives of its citizens cannot be overstated.  We need this project to be more competitive with our neighboring counties to the east and south, we need this project to fuel tourism infrastructure, and we need this casino to give citizens and businesses hope for a better economic future.” 

The limited opposition voiced at the meeting focused on concerns for the impact of gambling addiction on the community.  Casey Arnouts, the pastor at Grace Assembly of God in Fruitport said:  “If someone has a problem gambling, you could lose a house; it’s a stress for marriages.  Kids are impacted by anything that gets to that level.”  In response, Little River Band Ogema Larry Romanelli indicated: “We have studied the effects of problem gambling. I’ve also seen the effects of unemployment and know what that can do to families as well. I’d be happy to meet with the churches. I’m a proud Christian, so I’m open to meet any time.”

The BIA will take the public comments into consideration, as well as written comments that must be submitted before January 8, in compiling its final environmental impact statement.

Comments can be emailed to felix.kitto@bia.gov or mailed to Timothy LaPointe, Regional Director, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Midwest Region, 5600 West American Blvd. Ste. 500, Bloomington, MN 55437. The final statement is expected to be completed in spring 2019.  If federal approval is obtained, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians will seek state approval of the project before construction can begin.


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