Tribal quality of life boosted by casino revenues

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MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. (AP) -- Lisa Kennedy sifts through the blueprints for
a senior center planned for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Reservation,
highlighting her favorite features.

The $10 million building -- expected to open in 2007 -- could have 40
living units, including eight for residents with dementia. A health center
is expected to have the latest exercise equipment with plenty of room for
aerobics classes. And the kitchen could crank out hundreds of meals a day
for seniors living at the center and throughout Isabella County.

Kennedy, who will help run the center, said the long-sought dream will
become reality only because of the Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort -- a
$400 million-a-year moneymaker that tribal leaders credit with raising the
standard of living for their 3,200 members.

"It's just top-notch," Kennedy said of the center, which will replace a far
smaller building that opened about 10 years ago. "Without the casino, it
wouldn't be happening."

Critics -- including Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers of Brighton and
anti-gambling groups -- worry about casinos' hidden effects on families of
chronic gamblers and on the economies of nearby towns.

But on and near the Saginaw Chippewa reservation, tribal members are quick
to mention the positives.

Casino cash has helped improve health care and education opportunities for
tribal members. It provides the money for an annual per-person payment to
adult tribal members that was an estimated $70,000 last year.

And it has spillover benefits for Isabella County, where the Saginaw
Chippewa complex is the largest employer and 2 percent of the tribe's
gaming revenue goes to local governments and schools as part of an
agreement reached with the state.

New subdivisions under construction on the tribe's Isabella County
reservation reflect the rising standard of living. The houses get more
expensive with each wave, with the newest rivaling the finest in Mount
Pleasant.

"It's night and day," Frank Cloutier, a Saginaw Chippewa spokesman, said of
how the standard of living has changed since the expanded casino and
entertainment complex opened in 1998.

Nimkee Memorial Wellness Center opened in its current location in 1998. The
building has a dental clinic, full-service pharmacy and a fitness center.

The tribe's health clinic had one doctor and one examination room 25 years
ago. Today's center has 86 employees, including additional medical staff
and a full-time nutritionist. The center has nine exam rooms, and the
medical staff will make house calls.

Technicians use the latest technology to screen for diabetes and other
diseases common among the Indian population.

Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College also opened in the late 1990s and has grown
in large part because of casino and other tribal revenue, which now
provides half of the school's $1.2 million annual budget.

That keeps tuition at a relatively inexpensive $55 per credit hour for the
college's 138 students studying business, liberal arts and American Indian
studies. The college hopes to gain accreditation from the North Central
Association within a few years, an accomplishment that could be crucial to
its future growth.

The tribe's latest showcase, opened in 2004, is the $9.2 million Ziibiwing
Center focused on history and culture. Built with casino revenue and still
funded partly through gift shops in the casino and hotel, it drew 22,000
visitors in 2005.

The Ziibiwing Center is designed to give outsiders a glimpse of the
Anishinabe, Ojibway and Saginaw Chippewa world.

Isabella County's unemployment rate was 4.5 percent in December, the
third-lowest of Michigan's 83 counties. Only Washtenaw County, at 3.8
percent, and Menominee County, at 4.3 percent, had a better rate.

Some studies have suggested that while casinos help the economies of their
home counties, they may have negative effects in communities farther away
-- reflecting a loss in restaurant, hotel and entertainment revenue.

East Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group has published two recent studies
estimating the potential effects of casinos proposed for west Michigan.

AEG projected that a casino proposed for Wayland would attract money and
jobs to Allegan County, but drain resources and employment from nearby
Barry, Kalamazoo, Kent and Ottawa counties. The study was done in 2003 for
the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

"Communities can actually take a negative hit," said Rogers, a congressman
who has proposed a series of bills to curb the growth of Indian gaming.
"They lose restaurants and retailers."

AEG also did a study for Taxpayers of Michigan Against Casinos in 2004,
questioning the proposed economic benefits of a casino proposed for New
Buffalo. Casino supporters have criticized AEG's studies.

In Isabella County, home of the Soaring Eagle, most communities are
benefiting from the casino's presence.

Soaring Eagle has paid out more than $75 million to Isabella County's local
governments and schools since 1994, including about $4 million in a
semiannual payout announced in December.

The recent payment will help rebuild an increasingly busy county road, aid
a narcotics enforcement police team and assist projects in the Mount
Pleasant, Beal City, Chippewa Hills and Shepherd school districts.

The Beal City district has installed three computer labs, boosted library
and literacy programs, bought playground equipment and built a fence around
a nearby pond with its recent payouts from the Saginaw Chippewas.

The money has been particularly welcome in the 640-student district,
located about 15 miles northwest of Mount Pleasant, during recent years
when state aid didn't grow.

"Most of those projects we would not have been able to do otherwise,
especially in these times," Beal City Schools Superintendent Robert
Kjolhede said.