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Sunday, 15 March 2015 22:00

Q&A: Larry Romanelli, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians

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Larry Romanelli, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Larry Romanelli, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians COURTESY PHOTO

The Manistee-based Little River Band of Ottawa Indians last month filed paperwork with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Minneapolis to open a long-planned casino in Fruitport Township at the site of the former Great Lakes Downs racetrack. The tribe has proposed a 69,000-square-foot facility with 1,700 electronic games, 35 table games, five food outlets and approximately 220 hotel rooms. The proposed casino would be about 1.5 times as large as the tribe’s existing Little River Casino Resort in Manistee. Larry Romanelli, who serves as the tribe’s ogema – an elected position akin to the presidency, spoke with MiBiz about the prospect of another casino in the state as well the broader gaming market and how the Little River Band’s plans fit.

Why does this site make sense for a new casino?

Obviously, the location is very good because it intersects with I-96 and U.S.-31 going north and south. It’s is heavily commercial. There was already gaming on the site for a number of years through the racetrack. For all those reasons, we think it fits what we need to do. It has ample room for parking and just the general location.

What reaction has the tribe received toward its plans?

Everybody has been very supportive. The township, the county, the local units of government and the citizens of Muskegon County have been very supportive. We really appreciated that.

How could this project impact economic development efforts in the Muskegon area?

We believe that there are going to be well over 1,000 jobs created. Our Manistee casino employs about 850-900 people and if this is 1.5 times that size, then we absolutely believe that 1,000-1,200 jobs is very realistic. Obviously, when you have a casino of that size, it does encourage other economic development in the area, through entrepreneurship and other people coming to the area. The Lakes Mall has created that as well. It’s a growing area. There is still ample room out there for more growth.

Do you anticipate adding any other components to the casino project?

Our focus is on the casino project. We are not going into other specific developments. Some of the early renderings showed a little more, (but) we are focused on only the casino right now. With our casino (in Manistee), we do have some internal restaurants, but it isn’t a major focus. You just want a place for someone to grab a sandwich. We want to encourage other development of things outside.

Now that you’ve submitted plans to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, what are the next steps in the process?

They will look at the information we gave to them and they will send that packet on to the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. We are hoping that once the Department of  the Interior gets the information and looks at it, they will then issue a notice of intent to take the land in trust — we are hoping sometime this spring. We are looking at a short time frame for that. Once that happens, it still has to come back to the state of Michigan for final approval.

How long could the process take?

We are not going to be opening our doors anytime soon, that’s for sure. It could be several years yet. But it is a big step for us.

How do you describe the overall market for gaming in the state right now?

I think you have seen the largest influx of casinos come. It’s trickling off now. We have had that major influx. I think there are a few projects, which, like ours, are still in the works, but I think it’s very few. …  In my eight years as ogema, I think I’ve seen six casinos pop up. But you’ll see, I believe, a slow down.

Will there ever reach a point when there are too many casinos in Michigan?

You know, people have asked if I think there’s a saturation point: I do, but I don’t think we are at it right now by any means — and especially in the Muskegon area. If you look at the map of Michigan, Muskegon is very prime to have a casino.

Why expand with a new casino right now?

Because the revenues here are not what they used to be and we have more members all the time, we are trying to provide some services to our members and also provide jobs for the community. As you know, we provide jobs to our members but also to the community through our casino. We are the number one employer in Manistee with our casino. Jobs and economic development are the two things we are looking for.

What has the Little River Band done to diversify its business model to be sustainable beyond just gaming?

We just completed … a long-term sewer project to the north of Manistee. It’s supposed to improve infrastructure to grow business on the north side. It’s a major agreement that we had with the township of Manistee, the city and the county. … I think it’s a win-win-win-win. Everybody benefits by this. We have a new Meijer north of Manistee that is opening up. We are trying to encourage growth in the area. Aside from that, we do building of houses and some other smaller businesses. We are always looking to add other options.


Read 2966 times Last modified on Wednesday, 18 March 2015 21:26

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