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Tribe invests in future with purchase of Great Lakes Downs

FRUITPORT TOWNSHIP, Mich. - The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians recently purchased the Great Lakes Downs race track in Fruitport Township, Mich., and is also currently negotiating for additional property located near the track. Great Lakes Downs, with its history of betting at the horse races, may be the future site of the tribe;s second casino.

According to the tribal director for the office of public relations, Glenn Zaring, all options are on the table and being considered.

''At this point in time, the option remains open to keep the race track. That determination has not yet been made. We are looking at plans and drawings for the new casino - which would probably be anywhere from one-and-a-half, and up to two times the size of the Little River Casino Resort in Manistee.''

That would mean up to 46,000 square feet of new gaming space for the Muskegon area.

Muskegon County has agreed to put a non-binding referendum on November's ballot for residents and the business community to voice their approval, or disapproval, of the proposed off reservation Class III casino.

The Muskegon County Board has given its unanimous support and now the Fruitport Township Board has drafted a resolution in support of the casino with the understanding their support is based on creating a Municipal Service Agreement and Developmental Contract acceptable to both the Tribe and Township.

''We had a good meeting today [Aug. 14] and I think that given a little bit of time, any issues people had will be worked out,'' said outgoing Fruitport Township Supervisor Ronald Cooper. ''I am one of the people who weren't too excited about the casino, but the reality is that it is probably the best place in western Michigan for it, and also in the greater Muskegon area. I think it is going to come, so we might just as well do the best job we can with it. However, there are still a lot of question marks.''

''We would put the property that is the footprint of the casino into trust status and would work cooperatively with other developers on what would still be fee simple land which would improve the tax situation for the Fruitport area,'' Zaring said. ''We are considering everything from restaurants, shopping venues or possibly partnering with a hotel chain. We are still in the economic development phase and do not have complete plans ready to release at this point.''

He said a fair estimate of the amount the tribe is willing to invest is around the $100 million mark. Plans for the casino must now go to the Secretary of the Interior for a Secretarial Determination.

''Realistically, at this point in time we feel we have taken all the steps necessary to have a good chance of this proceeding. Otherwise, we would not have purchased the property,'' Zaring said.

Ogema Tribal Chief Larry Romanelli issued a statement that said, ''We are pleased to be able to make this investment in western Michigan's economy as it will help bring jobs, businesses and tourism to the area. This move is being made by the tribe as a commitment to serve a region that is part of our historic 9-county service area.''

With the current casino in Manistee becoming a leisure destination and entertainment resort, the affect of the second casino will be minimized by cross-marketing both locations, according to tribal officials. Establishment of the Muskegon casino will increase employment opportunities for the tribe and local communities and draw more out-of-state visitors and people from the Chicago area. The development of the casino complex would also promote more economic development opportunities for the region.

''We have serious family ties to Muskegon and this is our chance to go in and help kick start things and do something good for all of us. We are definitely looking at western Michigan as a tourism area. The more all of us can work together to prove the tourism draw for this area, the better it will be for everybody,'' Zaring said.