KBIC: Gov. Snyder nixes planned casino project

MARQUETTE – While Keweenaw Bay Indian Community officials said Gov. Rick Snyder has maintained his stance opposing their request to build a resort and entertainment complex in Negaunee Township, representatives of the governor’s office said the state is open to discussion and the KBIC must resubmit a federal application to allow the land to be taken into trust.

After the move was approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior in late 2011, Snyder in 2013 rejected the KBIC’s request to relocate its Ojibwa II Casino from Chocolay Township to the 80-acre parcel that was formerly the Marquette County Airport.

At that time, the Department of Interior’s assistant secretary determined the move to be in the best interest of the tribe and would not be detrimental to the surrounding community. Under federal law, the governor must concur with the department’s approval for the land to be taken into trust and be used by the KBIC for gaming purposes.

“We still are not aware of the (KBIC) resubmitting an application for the airport parcel to be taken into trust for the purpose of gaming, which is required by federal law,” said Anna Heaton, Snyder’s press secretary. “If that happens, it is a decision the governor will give very serious due consideration.”

KBIC President Warren Swartz sent a letter April 8 to Snyder asking if he would concur with a decision by the Department of Interior allowing the project to move forward, according to a news release from the tribe. KBIC officials received a response April 22 from Snyder’s associate legal counsel Dave Nyberg.

“The letter the (KBIC) sent to the governor was formally presented and elicited a formal response from our attorney,” Heaton said. “However, this doesn’t reflect the numerous conversations in which we have regularly communicated to the tribal council president that the governor is willing to reopen the discussion about a gaming venue at the former airport property in Marquette.”

KBIC officials said in order to pursue the development, the tribe would have to again go through a “costly and time-consuming process” with the Department of the Interior, and that if the request was approved, Snyder’s concurrence would still be required.

“Once again, Governor Snyder refused to concur in KBIC’s proposed development,” the release states. “Instead, Mr. Nyberg vaguely indicated that the governor might be willing to enter into a ‘common agreement’ that, according to Mr. Nyberg, would mutually benefit KBIC, the state and the citizens of Marquette County.”

Tribal officials said the “common agreement” was the same tactic Snyder used to block the project in 2013, and it was really “a series of demands for concessions by KBIC,” according to the release.

At that time, Snyder had requested the KBIC not pursue the development of a tribal gas station on U.S. 41 in Marquette, that it levy taxes on KBIC tribal members and non-tribal customers and reduce its exclusive gaming area the tribe and state agreed to in the 1993 gaming compact, according to the release.

In 2013, Snyder said he hoped to reach a larger deal that would have also included revising the revenue-sharing agreement between the state and the KBIC to ensure payments to the state will continue, even if Michigan authorizes additional gaming in the future. Under the agreement then, the tribe’s revenue payments would have stopped if state-authorized gaming was expanded.

Snyder’s office also expressed concern with several other tribal issues, including the withholding of revenue sharing payments between 2005 and 2008; allowing businesses within reservation boundaries to disregard public health and safety laws, such as the state’s smoking ban and food services licensing requirements; the violation of tobacco statutes by selling untaxed and unstamped cigarettes to non-tribal customers; and refusal to collect use tax from non-tribal members at tribal retail operations.

“Unfortunately, the (KBIC) and state were unable to reach an agreement,” Nyberg’s letter reads. “As a result, the governor did not concur in the assistant secretary’s determination. If the (KBIC) intends to further pursue … gaming at the airport parcel, the governor and state are willing (to) re-establish dialogue toward reaching a common agreement.”

KBIC is looking to develop a tourism destination resort, featuring a hotel lodge and proposed waterpark resort; chef-inspired restaurants; a spa, fitness center and salon; a conference center; a golf course; indoor and outdoor entertainment venues; retail outlets; a recreational vehicle resort; and gaming facilities.

The tribe said the new complex would provide 200 new jobs, with another 100 part-time jobs during the summer tourism season and about 230 construction jobs while the complex is being built.

“There can be no dispute as to the benefits of the project,” the KBIC release states. “Development of the entertainment and gaming complex would mean increased revenues for the tribe, allowing it to provide more government services to its members and to non-members residing on the tribe’s reservation and trust lands.”

KBIC officials could not be reached for comment.

Ryan Jarvi can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.