Hundreds of locals attended a public hearing in Muskegon County, Michigan, this past Wednesday evening to express their stance on a new casino project in Fruitport Charter Township. The two-hour hearing was held in the auditorium of the Fruitport Middle School and attracted both community leaders and residents of the county, with the vast majority of attendees speaking in favor of the $180-million project.
The proposal for a new casino, built by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, first came three years ago when another public hearing was held, with most of the locals embracing the idea. The feedback yesterday was pretty much identical. Most members of the community are of the opinion a new casino and hotel will revive the region from the hit it took after the economic recession of 2007.
The tribe of the Ottawa Indians plans to build the new venue at the site of what used to be the Great Lakes racecourse in Fruitport Township. According to officials from the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, the casino resort will spread over 149,000 square feet. The plans include a hotel with 220 rooms, an entertainment venue, a parking, restaurants, 1,700 slot machines, and as many as 35 table games.
The Planned Casino Resort Is to Create 1,200 Job Positions
Most of the attendees approved the idea since the project is expected to create full-time jobs for around 1,200 of the locals. The job positions are estimated to generate an annual income of $45,000 per person on average. Positions of greater responsibility are expected to pay over $60,000 annually.
As many as 53 locals and community leaders testified during the meeting, with 50 of them speaking in favor of building the new casino resort. The project was also embraced by the President of the Muskegon Community College, Dale Nesbary. Mr. Nesbary commented the project may be of assistance to college students who have signed up for programs like entrepreneurship, music, hospitality, and graphic design. According to him, many of these students fit the job descriptions for some of the job positions.
Brian Werschem, who previously occupied the position of Fruitport Township Supervisor, also spoke in favor of the casino, stressing that it would help the region’s poor economy grow. Muskegon County took a heavy hit in the wake of the 2007 economic crisis, with unemployment rates increasing to around 17% in 2009 and 2010 alone.
Data released by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates the unemployment in the area has currently dropped to around 4%, which is seemingly on par with the rates in the rest of the country. However, analysts suggest the rates may not be as low as it appears because unemployed locals who have given up on looking for new job opportunities are not taken into account.
School poverty rates have also increased from 30% to 55% since 2007. Meanwhile, new student enrollment has dropped to around 40 students per school year.
The impact of the casino and resort will be especially significant considering some of Muskegon’s biggest businesses, like Sappi Limited and the Cobb power plant, have left the region, which on its own has resulted in many people losing their jobs. That being said, some attendees have voiced their disapproval of the casino at yesterday’s hearing.
Few Attendees Voiced Their Concerns
One of the representatives of the Muskegon Humane Society was present at the meeting and expressed concerns that the new casino may have a negative financial impact on the organization due to the fact most of its funding results from bingo revenue.
The Pastor of Fruitport’s Grace Assembly of God Church, Casey Arnouts, voiced his concerns that the opening of a new gambling venue may lead to an increase in gambling addiction rates. Mr. Arnouts said he prefers the casino not to be built but if it is, more funds should be allocated for the support of locals who struggle with problem gambling.
Larry Romanelli, the Ogema of the tribe of the Ottawa Indians, suggested a meeting between tribal members and the local churches to discuss these concerns in more depth. Presently, the Ottawa tribe offers annual funding of $25,000, allocated for mental-health services in Muskegon County.
Members of the Muskegon community can submit their comments and opinions on the new casino and resort’s environmental impact statement until January 7th, 2019. At the end of this period, the federal government will rule out on the matter but Michigan’s legislators will have the last say on whether or not a new casino resort will be built in Muskegon.