Proposed Casino in Michigan Is on the Fast Track

A proposed tribal casino in New Buffalo, Mich. is back on the fast track after a ruling late Thursday by U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson.

Robertson's ruling in favor of the U.S. Department of the Interior clears the way for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians to resume plans for a land-based casino near the resort community on Lake Michigan shores.

If built, the 144,000-square-foot casino is expected to be a major competitor for the Blue Chip riverboat casino, just 10 miles away in Michigan City, and to a lesser extent the other gambling boats lining the Lake Michigan shoreline in Indiana.

The ruling Thursday effectively leaves it up to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to determine whether sufficient study has been done to determine the impact of the proposed 465-acre development on the community.

The lawsuit against the Department of the Interior was brought by Taxpayers of Michigan Against Casinos, alleging not enough was known about how the casino development would affect the small community.

The Department of the Interior regulates tribal land through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Pokagon spokesman John Miller called it "a great day for the Pokagons," and for tribal supporters in southwestern Michigan.

The tribe will begin seeking to have the 465 acres placed in federal trust, a process that was under way and nearly complete when the lawsuit was filed, Pokagon spokesman Tom Shields said.

Federal American Indian gaming laws permit casinos only on land that is either part of a reservation or held in trust by the federal government.

"We just need the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take the land in trust," Shields said. "Once that happens, it will take us three months to assemble a construction crew."

The casino and six restaurants planned for the first phase of the development would be up and running within 18 months of land-in-trust approval, Shields said. A hotel and special events center would be built later.

The ruling dealt a serious blow to casino opponents, said Michael Hosinski, one of a core of between six and eight members who make up Taxpayers of Michigan Against Casinos.

"This is not good for us," Hosinski said. "We don't know what our options are."

The opposition group has 60 days to decide whether to appeal, Hosinski said.

"It would have to be a worthy appeal. We're not going to file it if we don't have some chance of winning it," Hosinski said.

The tribal casino would change the dynamics of Indiana's gaming industry, said Ed Feigenbaum, editor of Indiana Gaming Insight.

Unlike riverboats, which are limited by size, "This will be land-based and unlimited," Feigenbaum said. "And you will have the ability to build additional kinds of land-based facilities, such as a concert hall, retail and other establishments."

The Blue Chip Casino has prepared for the likelihood of the Pokagon casino by embarking on a $163 million project that includes a new, more spacious riverboat and other amenities.

"We have felt all along that this was a strong possibility at some point in the future," Blue Chip spokesman Rob Stillwell said.

"While (the Pokagon) still have a ways to go, it looks like they will be moving forward."