‘Big flashing green light’

By Andy Balaskovitz
From left: Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, Sault Tribe Chairman Aaron Payment and Bob Liggett of Lansing Future LLC sign land transfer documents today at the Lansing Center. Andy Balaskovitz/City Pulse

Mayor Bernero, Sault Tribe chairman announce progress in Kewadin Lansing casino; legal challenges still ahead

Thursday, Nov. 1 — Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians officials and private investors were aglow late this morning as they signed a purchase agreement for downtown land they hope will be transformed into a casino.

Land valued at $280,000 at the corner of Cedar Street and Michigan Avenue — a parking lot on the side of the Lansing Center —was officially transferred from the city to the Sault Tribe today. The Sault Tribe hopes to apply to the federal government to have the land taken into trust so it can build a temporary casino on that parcel. If approved, the tribe would acquire another parcel behind the Lansing Center to build a permanent casino. Together, they’d form a L-shaped building.

“We have a big flashing green light for this project,” Bernero said today during a press conference. “This is a beacon of hope.”

But opponents of the project, particularly the state of Michigan, the Saginaw Indian Tribe and Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi, say that’s not entirely true. A lawsuit filed by Attorney General Bill Schuette in federal court is challenging whether the Sault Tribe can even apply to have the land taken into trust. Citing a section of the Sault Tribe’s gaming compact with the state, a spokesman for the opposition said the Sault Tribe needs a written agreement from all federally recognized tribes in the state before it can apply.

Without that, “It prohibits the tribe from applying to put the land into trust,” said James Nye, a spokesman for the opposing tribes. “The only thing to celebrate today is the transfer of land. I don’t see how that’s a milestone.”

However, John Wernet, general counsel for the Sault Tribe, said while a team of attorneys is still working on a response to the state’s lawsuit, the section does not apply because the tribe is trying to get the land placed into trust under the Michigan Indian Land Claims Settlement Act, not the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

“Obviously there’s going to be a legal struggle that has to take place,” Wernet said, adding that he “can’t give an absolute time table” for when that might end.

The tribe is confident its argument will hold up. The case is in federal district court in west Michigan and a decision could be appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The $245 million, 125,000-square foot project would create an estimated 700 construction and 1,500 permanent jobs, officials say. Also, potential revenues would fully fund the Lansing Promise, a scholarship program that funds four-year instate college tuition for Lansing School District graduates.

Sault Tribe Chairman Aaron Payment, said today that the tribe chose Lansing because “this is Indian country,” emphasizing that about 2,000 Sault Tribe members live in the area. Opponents argue that the tribe shouldn’t be able to operate a casino hundreds of miles from its reservation in Sault Ste. Marie.

Payment said that at the heart of the opposing tribes’ position is concern for a loss of market share. “I don’t fault them,” he said.

Bernero called the economic possibilities for the city “incalculable” and also is confident that the legal argument will hold up in court. “To those who doubt: Don’t bet against Lansing,” he proclaimed.