The U.S. House Natural Resources Committee has passed bills that would let two Michigan tribes build off-reservation casinos without standard federal approvals in Port Huron, Romulus or Flint. The full House could vote on bills for the Bay Mills and Sault Ste. Marie tribes’ proposals within two months.
The bills actually authorize land-claim settlements former Governor John Engler made with both tribes in 2002. They agreed to give up claims to land now occupied by hundreds of homes in the Charlotte Beach area in return for casino sites in less remote areas.
Bay Mills hopes to build at the U.S.-Canada border crossing of Port Huron. Sault Ste. Marie, which is Michigan’s largest tribal gamer and majority owner of the Greektown commercial casino in Detroit, has studied sites in the Detroit suburb of Romulus.
Detroit’s two other casinos and Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick oppose new casinos, particularly one as close as Romulus-as evidenced by Kilpatrick’s testimony at a lobbyist-crowded resources committee hearing a week before the panel’s February 13 vote.
Well-funded opposition to a Romulus casino gives Flint Mayor Don Williamson hope of snaring a casino for his city. “Romulus is right on top of Detroit, and Flint is 70 miles away, so that gives us a great advantage,” he says.
The Sault Ste. Marie agreement allows Flint as an alternative casino location, although the tribe has barely considered it, a spokesman says. Williamson would not disclose what he has discussed in recent days with tribal chairman Aaron Payment, beyond observing, “I think they would be happy with either Romulus or Flint.”
The passage of the bills through the committee involves a rare public fight in Congress to allow two Indian casinos to open off the reservation in Michigan in violation of a new Bureau of Indian Affairs policy. (See story above.)