U.P. tribes gambling on expansion

Michigan State Roundup

Published May 1, 2008  | May 2008 issue

Two Upper Peninsula tribes are hoping to bring a little more Vegas to lower Michigan near Detroit.

The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and the Bay Mills Indian Community are hoping to open off-reservation casinos in the cities of Romulus and Port Huron, both on the eastern side of lower Michigan—one north and one south of Detroit—and some 350 miles away from the tribes' reservation.

In exchange for off-reservation sites for the two new casinos, the tribes are willing to settle claims for 110 acres of land around Charlotte Beach in the U.P., a dispute with the federal government that dates back 120 years.

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has been a strong critic of the plan, noting that the new casinos are a short drive from Detroit's three downtown casinos (all of which are state licensed) and will siphon players, jobs and other positive economic effects that have been important to that city's revitalization, particularly in light of the downturn in the automotive sector. Detroit casinos reportedly took in $1.3 billion in revenue last year.

With 17 other tribally owned casinos in the state, other tribes are not particularly thrilled either; a majority of the state's 12 tribes reportedly oppose the measure.

As of late March, a U.S. House panel had approved the land-rights-for-casinos swap, and advocates are hoping for prompt attention by the full House. The measure has considerable bipartisan support, in part because it is promising 3,000 new jobs and a $300 million investment. Residents of the two cities involved have also officially voted their support.

But a number of legal and political matters stand in the way. In 2004, state voters approved a referendum outlawing any gaming expansion without voter approval. Tribal gaming compacts with the state also outlaw any off-reservation gambling unless tribes agree to share revenue proceeds from those particular casinos.

The matter also has to pass the Senate, where Nevada Democrat and majority leader Harry Reid reportedly opposes the measure. And if the matter is not passed during this congressional session, the entire affair has to start over next year, according to news reports.

Ronald A. Wirtz