FRUITPORT TOWNSHIP, MI – Government officials; residents; nonprofit, business and educational leaders; and tribal members all came out to support the proposed $180 million Muskegon County casino project during a public hearing on Wednesday, Dec. 12.

Out of 53 comments delivered during the hearing at Fruitport Middle School, 50 were in favor of the project. Two people voiced concerns related to gambling addictions. One person was concerned about local nonprofits losing bingo revenue in the wake of a tribal casino opening.

“I’ve received nothing but encouragement and support since the announcement of the plan,” said Larry Romanelli, tribal ogema of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, which has been working toward a casino in Fruitport Township since it purchased the former Great Lakes Downs racetrack in 2008. Romanelli was the first to speak during the pubic comment portion of the meeting.

The casino, nestled in the intersection of U.S. 31 and I-96, would include about 69,000 square feet of gaming floor space with 1,700 slot machines and 35 table games, a 220-room hotel, conference and meeting room space, and dining and entertainment options.

With about 10 years in since its inception, the project appeared to have been paused since a public hearing during October 2015 that yielded mixed, but mostly positive, comments. Since then, the federal government has reviewed the tribe’s application to put 60 acres of land at the former racetrack into trust.

Placing the land in trust is a necessary step to building a tribal casino, and the lengthiest step in the process, Romanelli said previously. If the process continues expediently, the casino could open as early as 2020.

Wednesday’s hearing, held by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), was the next step toward federal approval to place the land in trust.

The BIA published the draft environmental impact statement for the project in November. Those who attended Wednesday’s meeting had the opportunity to comment on that document.

Comments delivered verbally or in written form at the hearing will be reviewed and considered as the BIA works on the final environmental impact statement, which is expected to be complete sometime during spring 2019. Written comments will be accepted through Monday, Jan. 7.

The detailed environmental impact statement includes the project’s potential effect on land use, geology and soils, water resources, agricultural resources, biological resources, cultural resources, traffic, air quality, noise, public health/environmental hazards, hazardous material and waste, public services and socio-economics.

On Wednesday, the proposed casino received verbal support from representatives of Fruitport Township, Fruitport Community Schools, Muskegon Community College, Muskegon County, Visit Muskegon, Lakeshore Museum Center, Muskegon Motorcycle Club, The Lakes Mall, the city of Norton Shores, West Michigan trade unions, local businesses, tribal members and West Michigan residents, including state Rep. Terry Sabo, D-Muskegon.

Most speakers pointed to the expected 1,200 full-time jobs with benefits and an average annual pay of $45,000 that the casino would provide. Supporters also said the casino would boost the county’s tourism industry and nearby retail corridor, create spin-off jobs, decrease the county’s unemployment rate and complement the ongoing redevelopment of downtown Muskegon.

Muskegon County’s unemployment rate was 4 percent in October, which is the most recent data available from the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

Some emphasized the need to return the vacant land to gainful use, which they said the casino would accomplish.

Others described the tribe as a good neighbor that gives back to the community through charitable donations, and as a good business partner that doesn’t cut corners in construction of its buildings.

Tribal members addressed the benefits that the casino would provide to the tribe. The casino revenue would help provide housing, health care and other tribal government services to members who reside in the area, they said.

Amid the favorable voices were a few dissenters.

“As a pastor, we have some concern because we’re the people who speak with those who have problems in marriages, people who have gambling addictions,” said Casey Arnouts, of Grace Assembly of God.

The proposed $25,000 annual contribution to Muskegon County’s mental health service, HealthWest, is too little, Arnouts added.

A second speaker spoke about gambling addiction.

“I ask you to consider the health, safety and welfare issues gambling presents,” Jerry Bush said. “This is not a rich community. This is a poor community, and it will get a lot poorer with a casino.”

But there were far more voices in support of the project.

“I see this casino as building upon the history of the growth that we’ve had and solidifying the future for Fruitport Township,” said Scott Campbell, co-owner of My Auto Import Center, which is located near the proposed casino site. “This casino will be a win for our schools, the community they serve and the businesses in the area.”

Written comments can be submitted via email with the subject line “DEIS Comments, Little River Band Trust Acquisition and Casino Project” to Felix Kitto, regional environmental protection specialist, Bureau of Indian Affairs, at felix.kitto@bia.gov.

Comments can be mailed to:

Midwest Regional Director, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Midwest Region, Norman Pointe II, Building, 5600 West American Boulevard, Suite 500 Bloomington, MN 55347

Tor view the full environmental impact statement, visit littlerivereis.com.

Romanelli expects the federal government to render a swift approval following the comment period.

If federal approval is obtained, the tribe will seek state approval of the project, which requires an act of the state legislature. By then the new House, Senate and governor will be in place, but Romanelli still anticipates support from the state government.

State approval is the final step before the tribe can begin work toward construction, he said. Construction could take a year to a year and a half.

“I have high hopes that the state governor, House and Senate will be supportive,” Romanelli said. “We’re in a good place and doing this for good reasons. They all understand jobs in West Michigan.”

The Little River Band has signed a municipal services agreement with Muskegon County and Fruitport Township to make payments for public safety, sanitary sewer, public water construction and other services related to the casino.

The tribe operates its government and the Little River Casino Resort in Manistee County, but a large portion of its members reside in Muskegon County.

Original source: https://www.mlive.com/news/muskegon/2018/12/muskegon-area-casino-plan-receives-overwhelming-support-at-public-hearing.html

 

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