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Tribe plans to build casino near airport; Sag Chips oppose

Observer Staff

10/28/2005 12:00:00 AM

ROMULUS(AP)-With the roar of jet engines in the background, a northern Michigan American Indian Tribe recently announced plans to build a $243 million casino and hotel complex just north of Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

The Hannahville Indian Community-which already owns and operates the Chip In Casino in Michigan's Upper Peninsula-says the 24-acre complex would create 3,300 new jobs and bring in more than $300 million in annual revenue. The Tribe is partnering on the proposed casino with Sweetwater Gaming Inc. of Naples, Fla.

But the casino project faces formidable obstacles. It must be approved by the U.S. Department of Interior, which has not allowed an off-reservation casino since 2000. Then, the governor must agree to the proposal.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm "has long had serious concerns about off-reservation Tribal gaming," said Liz Boyd, her spokeswoman. "Part of it involves Tribes operating casinos great distances from their reservation and their governmental centers."

Boyd, however, would not comment on the Hannahville community's proposal.

Saginaw Chippewa Public Relations Director Joseph Sowmick said the Mt. Pleasant-based Tribe is opposed to the project.

"We are not in favor of any other Tribe opening and operating a casino on our ancestral Tribal lands," he explained.

Generally, it takes 21/2 years for a casino to gain approval from the secretary of the interior, said Gary Garrison, Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesman. Only three off-reservation casinos have been approved since they were allowed by Congress in 1988, he said.

"There's a lot of desire to do it, but there hasn't been a whole lot of success," he said.

Tribal Chairman Kenneth Meshigaud said he hopes for quick approval from the federal government.

"We feel that this is a good project. It's in a good location and has overwhelming community support," Meshigaud said at a news conference at the site in Romulus, about 25 miles west of Detroit.

Romulus voters in 2003 passed a referendum for a new casino, with 56.6 percent in favor. Garrison said such approval would help the proposal.

Another obstacle is a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Brighton, that would ban off-reservation casinos. The measure is in the House Resources Committee and likely will have a hearing in November, said Sylvia Warner, spokeswoman for Rogers.

Casino supporters, including Romulus Mayor Alan R. Lambert, say market studies show the new gambling site would not take money from the three casinos in Detroit or from one in nearby Windsor, Ontario.

"There's been studies done to show that there's plenty to go around," said Lambert, who added that the complex could bring the city $15 million to $20 million in additional property tax revenue that could be used to cut taxes.

The casino would be part of a larger complex near an Interstate 94 freeway interchange that includes a new horse track, retail mall and convention center.

Meshigaud said proximity to the airport would help the 200-room hotel and casino draw more than 5 million visitors per year to its 2,400 slot machines and 90 gaming tables.

The Hannahville Indian Community, located in Wilson, has about 800 members, officials said.