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First slots arrive at Michigan’s newest casino

EMMETT TOWNSHIP, Mich. – Representatives of the FireKeepers Casino are optimistic about the future of Michigan’s newest gambling establishment, despite the state’s distressed economy.

The 107,000-square-foot casino near Battle Creek is scheduled to open sometime in early August. The first of its 2,680 slot machines were unloaded from semis during a red-carpet ceremony on Monday.

The 1,000-member Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians owns the casino, which sits on 78 acres alongside Interstate 94 in Calhoun County’s Emmett Township, about 60 miles south-southeast of Grand Rapids.

“Certainly we’d rather open in a booming economy than a down economy, but given our demographics here, our market, our location right on I-94 and the 50- to 100-mile zone that we have before we run into competition – and also given what the propensity to gaming here is in Michigan – I think we’re going to do just fine,” said R. Bruce McKee, FireKeepers’ general manager.

It will be the state’s 19th tribal casino. Three non-tribal, or commercial, casinos operate in Detroit.

Based on taxes paid to the state, slot revenues at tribal casinos apparently rose slightly from 2007 to 2008, according to Michigan Gaming Control Board records, although the figures are skewed because the Four Winds Casino Resort near New Buffalo was open less than half of 2007.

Revenues from slots and other sources at the Detroit casinos rose 1.9 percent during the period, while revenues at commercial casinos nationwide fell 4.7 percent, according to a recent survey by the American Gaming Association, the gambling industry’s trade group.

“Even though there have been devastating affects economically to the state, this sort of entertainment still is a source of revenue for the state,” said Laura Spurr, chairwoman of the Nottawaseppi Huron Tribe.

The tribe’s pact with the state calls for it to give 8 percent of its slot machine revenue to the state and 2 percent to a board representing local governments.

Besides slots, FireKeepers also will have 78 gaming tables, rooms for poker and bingo and five restaurants. Its parking garage will have 2,078 parking spaces.

Ground was broken for the casino in May 2008 after a decade of planning. A hotel is possible but not currently in the works, McKee said.

About 28,000 people have applied for the casino’s 1,500 jobs, which “makes it a little difficult to screen through all those and find the best people that we want,” he said. Nearly 200 have been hired so far.

One-third of the jobs will involve food and drink.

Construction of the casino gave a $100 million boost to the local economy, Spurr said. Local companies and workers were used whenever possible.

“This is what we’ve been working toward for 10 years,” she said. “The profits from our economic development project here will provide infrastructure for the tribe, which means it’ll provide housing, education, health care – things that the tribe needs in order to take care of its members.”

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