Fruitport casino would create about 1,200 needed jobs, spur economic development in Muskegon County, community leaders say at hearing

Hundreds of people attend a public hearing on the casino proposed for Fruitport.

The message was resoundingly clear: Build the casino.

Hundreds of people poured into the Fruitport Middle School auditorium for a public hearing on a $180 million casino project proposed for Fruitport Township Wednesday evening, and the overwhelming majority of those who testified during the event voiced adamant support for the gaming facility. Community leaders and area residents said the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians’ plan to build the casino would bring needed jobs and economic development to a region that has financially struggled in the wake of the 2007 recession.

“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,” Fruitport Superintendent of Schools Bob Szymoniak said. “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.”

A rendering of the proposed casino.

The United States Bureau of Indian Affairs held the two-hour public hearing in order to gather input on the federal government’s draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the proposed casino, which the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians hopes to build at the northeast intersection of South Harvey Street and Ellis Road, south of I-96, in Fruitport Township. If approved, the project would include 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 EIS analyzed such issues as the casino project’s impact on geology and soils, water resources, transportation, public services, noise, and more. For example, the report specifies those involved in the casino project would need to limit fertilizer use, test on-site groundwater if using on-site wells, not permit construction to happen between 11pm and 7am, educate employees to recognize signs of gambling addiction and train employees to provide information regarding addiction, and more. The full EIS is available by going to littlerivereis.com.

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians purchased the land for the casino—formerly the site of the Great Lakes Downs racetrack—10 years ago, in 2008, and has since been working to open the gaming facility that is expected to create 1,200 full-time jobs that annually pay an average of $45,000, with manager positions paying upwards of $60,000.

“We provide tremendous benefits for our staff,” said Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Councilman Ron Pete, the former general manager of the Little River Casino Resort in Manistee.

“No one ever paid a penny for their insurance,” Pete said of the Little River Casino Resort, which too is owned and operated by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. “I can proudly say that my insurance as general manager was the same as the dishwashers.”

Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Ogema Larry Romanelli, third from left, attends the public hearing.

In addition to the Dec. 12 public hearing, the public has until Jan. 7 to submit comments regarding the casino’s environmental impact statement. (Information on how to submit comments is provided at the end of this article.) Following the conclusion of the public comment period, the federal government will make their ruling, after which the state legislature will have the ultimate say as to whether or not the project will become a reality.

Of the 53 people who testified during the public hearing, 50 expressed significant support for the casino. Two individuals voiced concern regarding the impact of gambling addiction on the community, and a representative from the Muskegon Humane Society said she was worried that her organization would take a serious financial hit because it receives the majority of its funding from bingo revenue in Muskegon County.

“If someone has a problem gambling, you could lose a house; it’s a stress for marriages,” said Casey Arnouts, the pastor at Grace Assembly of God in Fruitport. “Kids are impacted by anything that gets to that level.”

Ideally, Arnouts said he would rather the casino not be built, but he noted that, “at the very least,” he would like to see the casino allocate more funding for mental health support for those struggling with gambling addictions. Currently, the tribe has offered a $25,000 annual contribution to support mental health services in the county.

In response to Arnouts, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Ogema Larry Romanelli emphasized he and other tribal members would want to meet with the local church community regarding concerns.

“I want to thank Casey Arnouts for stepping forward,” Romanelli said. “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.”

Audience members at the public hearing.

Hailing from a wide range of backgrounds, from government and education to labor unions and tribe members, the rest of the speakers emphasized their support for a casino that Romanelli said he hopes will “be one of the largest employers in Muskegon County.”

Former Fruitport Township Supervisor Brian Werschem noted that, for each of the 1,200 direct jobs the casino is slated to offer, another 2.5 related jobs would likely be created. This kind of economic growth could translate to lifting people out of poverty, a number of speakers testified.

“Since the ‘Great Recession’ hit around 2007, families in our school district have suffered,” said Szymoniak, the Fruitport schools superintendent. “This is confirmed by the fact that over this period of time our school poverty rate has nearly doubled, from around 30 percent to 55 percent today. In addition, our district enrollment has dropped approximately 40 students per year over that time. So the economic downtown not only had an impact on these families, but dramatically impacted school funding, making it difficult for us to maintain a competitive educational program in this age of school choice.”

“I am therefore excited about the large number of jobs this casino and all associated economic development would bring into our school district,” the superintendent continued. “The increase in employment opportunities would obviously do much to stabilize, and likely grow, our enrollment. It would also stabilize the financial conditions of our families to hopefully reduce our poverty rate.”

Lakeshore Museum Center Executive Director Annoesjka Soler testifies in support of the casino.

Muskegon Community College President Dale Nesbary noted that the casino could potentially hire students involved in many of the college’s programs, from hospitality and music to graphic design, and he too stressed the financial ripple effects a major economic development like the casino could create in the area.

“Having this kind of impact on Muskegon will be transformational,” Nesbary said.

After the 2007 recession hit, Muskegon’s unemployment jumped to about 17 percent in 2009 and 2010. Unemployment in the Muskegon region is now hovering around 4 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While that’s on par with the U.S. unemployment rate as a whole, economic analysts have cautioned the rate is likely not as low as it seems, in part because the federal government’s unemployment figures do not account for individuals who lost jobs and have since given up on finding work. 

“It comes down to jobs for us,” said Chris Pelton, a member of West Michigan Plumbers, Fitters and Service Trades Local Union No. 174. “This is a huge socio-economic impact. Here in Muskegon and Ottawa counties, we have 360-some members. To have a job of this size in our own backyard is a huge thing.”

That economic impact is especially important following the closure of some of the area’s larger businesses, said Jason Finch, also of Local 174.

“We’ve watched some of the bigger industry leave—Sappi and the Cobb plant,” Finch said. “That’s a significant number of jobs lost. This casino would be a huge impact for us. We’ve always supported this; my entire membership supports this.”

These casino jobs will help to further diversify Muskegon’s economy as it moves away from being dominated by industry, said Julie Dennis, a former state representative from Muskegon.

“Our largest employers—healthcare, local government, schools, private industry—are not enough to sustain our employment base,” Dennis said. “The new casino will bring good-paying jobs…It will lift the base pay of all employees, as employers will compete for the best employees.”

“Muskegon will become a destination location,” Dennis added.

Audience members sit in Fruitport Middle School’s auditorium for the public hearing.

If the Fruitport venue follows in the economic footsteps of the Little River Casino Resort, it could have financial ripple effects throughout the region, said Andrew Gentile, the Manistee casino’s general manager.

Since the Manistee casino opened in 1999, the total local revenue share is a little more than $35.5 million, Gentile said.

“I’m sure Muskegon could do a lot with that,” he said.

“I know Muskegon wants to build a convention center and wants to build tourism—this would be another tool in the toolbox to attract people,” Gentile continued.

Additional speakers who voiced their support for the casino during the public hearing included: Norton Shores Mayor Gary Nelund, Lakeshore Museum Center Executive Director Annoesjka Soler, Muskegon County Commissioner Susie Hughes, Muskegon County Treasurer Tony Moulatsiotis, a representative from state Rep. Terry Sabo’s [D-Muskegon] office, and Visit Muskegon Director Bob Lukens, among others.

To submit comments regarding the casino’s environmental impact statement, you can email Felix Kitto, regional environmental protection specialist at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, at felix.kitto@bia.gov. Emails should have the subject line “DEIS Comments, Little River Band Trust Acquisition and Casino Project.”

Comments may also be mailed to:

Timothy LaPointe, Regional Director

Bureau of Indian Affairs, Midwest Region

5600 West American Blvd. Ste. 500

Bloomington, MN 55437

To read the full draft environmental impact statement, you can visit littlerivereis.com or find it at the Fruitport Library.

Story and photos by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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