Vanderbilt Casino Controversy

Nov 15, 2010

There's a new Indian-run casino in Vanderbilt north of Gaylord along I-75. It's a small facility with just a few dozen slot machines.

Its opening came as a shock to the state, and to several Indian nations in northern Michigan who contend it's illegal.

Quiet Open
The new casino opened so quietly early this month that its nearest competitor knew nothing of it.

"I heard 9&10 News was traveling over there to view the opening. So that's how we found out," says Ken Harrinton, chairman of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. His tribe owns a much larger casino, about 30 miles away in Petoskey, The Odawa Casino Resort.

Harrington says the really weird part was that the Bay Mills Indian Community, the tribe that owns the new casino, had only days before talked with him and other tribal leaders about that land. Bay Mills officials said they were going to use the land for elk hunting, he says.

"And then they surprised us, like seven-to-ten days later with the casino opening," Harrington says.

Unusual Procedure
It's not the normal way of doing things.

Harrington says he did know Bay Mills was interested in opening a casino in Vanderbilt eventually. But normally there would be an application process with the state. The land would also have to be placed in trust with the federal government, which limits the number of places a tribe can have a casino.

Bay Mills Chairman Jeff Parker has not been answering calls from news organizations, but the tribe's newspaper has published statements contending that Bay Mills had every right to open the casino as it did.

The Bay Mills News also touts the Indian nation as a pioneer in the gaming industry, leading the way for tribes across the U.S. to have gaming back in 1984. The speculation today is that Bay Mills now wants to make it easy for a tribe to open a casino pretty much anywhere it wants.

 Several other tribes are none-too-happy. Five tribes, including the Grand Traverse Band and the Saginaw-Chippewa Indian Tribe, have hired James Nye to represent them on this issue.

Nye says, if Bay Mills can open this way in Vanderbilt, communities all over should be concerned.

"Under that theory, they could purchase land downtown Detroit, downtown Port Huron," he says. "They could even go to New York City or Miami Beach, Florida and there would be no different scenario to the legal theory that they pull forth in Vanderbilt.

"So it should be very troubling, not only to the tribes that have expressed opposition to this, but also too many communities around the state of Michigan."

Of course, if Bay Mills can open a casino wherever it wants, so could Nye's clients. But he says these tribes don't want that. He says that could end up causing a public opposition to Indian gaming.

The state is also concerned.

"The new casino was an immediate concern, as soon as it opened," says Joy Yearout, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General. "And we're definitely following additional concerns that are being raised by the other tribes. This is an issue that could have an impact statewide."

Yearout declined to elaborate on what that meant. The A.G.'s office met last week with the Bay Mills tribe. Yearout says this is not the way tribes have opened casinos in the past, but it's too early to call the move illegal.

Threat To State Coffers
Back in Petoskey, Ken Harrington is unhappy with the wait-and-see posture taken by the state: "I think the state here is liable and they're at fault for not having a policy and procedure in place for an unauthorized or illegal opening, such as we have today."

Harrington says state officials should have gone straight to Vanderbilt and shut that casino down. He says it's not fair competition based on the agreement his tribe has with the state to operate a casino in Petoskey. So, come the first of the year, he plans to withhold millions of dollars in revenue-sharing payments from the state because he says Michigan has failed to protect its agreement.

The tribes say to expect lawsuits before this is over.