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Craps: Lansing casino project in jeopardy

Sault Ste Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians

Plans for a casino in downtown Lansing are in jeopardy this evening.

The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians wants to build a $245 million casino next to Lansing’s convention center.  However, before the tribe could build the casino, the U.S. Department of the Interior would have to agree to take the land for the casino into trust.

But Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette filed a lawsuit trying to block the tribe's trust request.

Today, U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker granted the state's motion for an injunction pending resolution of the Attorney General's lawsuit. The judge says the tribe cannot apply to the federal government "to have the … property taken into trust unless and until it obtains a written revenue sharing agreement with the other federally-recognized Indian Tribes in Michigan."

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has been a vocal critic of the casino plan.  Schuette issued this statement after the judge ruled:

"We are pleased with this ruling, which will halt efforts to build an illegal Lansing casino. Tribes are expected to follow state and federal gaming laws, and that includes abiding by the terms of the compacts they sign. This ruling rejects the Sault Tribe's argument that would have allowed an unchecked expansion of tribal gaming in Michigan."

The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe can appeal today’s ruling to the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But that appeal may take more than a year.   

The casino project has been moving forward in fits and starts since it was first announced. Questions about the project’s legality have only been part of the problem.  The tribe had to hold a referendum after questions were raised about how the tribe would distribute revenues from the casino. It took longer than expected to finalize an agreement with private developers and the city. Even acquiring the land proved more complicated than first expected.  Now, the project faces a more protracted legal fight than tribal leaders said they expected.

Tribal chairperson Aaron Payment issued a statement saying: 

“The Sault Tribe remains undeterred and steadfastly committed to pursuing our legal right to develop our Lansing casino. Anyone who understands tribal gaming and the trust land process also understands that this is going to be lengthy process with multiple legal steps along the way. Today’s ruling is simply the first step in the legal process. At the end of the day, we expect to prevail because our 1997 federal Land Claim Settlement Act clearly gives us the right, and because of the substantial economic benefits the project will generate for the people of Greater Lansing and the members of our Sault Tribe.”

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero has been a very vocal supporter of the casino project, often deriding state officials and Native American tribes that opposed it. He issued this statement on Judge Jonker’s ruling:

“I remain excited about the casino project and its tremendous potential for jobs and economic development for Lansing. I also remain confident in our legal team and that our proposal to build a casino in downtown Lansing will ultimately prevail. We always knew that there would be hurdles to overcome on this long legal road, and this is just one of them. We are committed to continue the fight and believe that we will be successful. Don’t bet against Lansing.”

Even if the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe eventually wins this legal battle, other tribes are expected to file suit in hopes of keeping a rival casino opening in downtown Lansing.

Other tribes applauded the federal judge's ruling.    A coalition spokesman for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi; Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe; Greektown Casino; MGM Grand Detroit issued the following statement:

"Judge Jonker’s order confirms what we have said all along; the tribal-state gaming compacts were intended to stop tribes from reservation shopping for casinos in the homelands of other tribes. This order will also prevent the Sault Tribe from pursuing a casino in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and any other place it had considered for a casino under its seriously flawed legal theory. No one should be surprised that Judge Jonker struck down this preposterous proposal that clearly violates state and federal law.”

The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe operates five other casinos in the Upper Peninsula. 

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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