2017-02-02 / Front Page

Casino, strip mall plans hang in balance

Recall backers file appeal
By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff


PESHAWBESTOWN COULD become a destination resort should a project that includes a shoreline casino go forward, backers of the project contend. PESHAWBESTOWN COULD become a destination resort should a project that includes a shoreline casino go forward, backers of the project contend. A $52 million development along M-22 in Peshawbestown is hanging in the balance of a split vote on the Tribal Council of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.

The development includes a strip mall, outdoor amphitheater and waterfront casino overlooking a 216-slip marina on West Grand Traverse Bay.

A slim majority on the Tribal Council and the EDC board are continuing to sort out the details of the proposed project, with a majority currently in favor: Councilors Percy Bird, Mark Wilson, David Arroyo and recently appointed Tom Shomin. Wilson is the subject of a recall effort.

One of the first-term Tribal Councilors elected this year, Bird considers himself to be a swing vote on the council, which also serves as the board of the tribe’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC). Bird was elected by his peers to serve as vice chairman of the EDC Board.

“The numbers really do add up for this project,” Bird told the Enterprise this week. “The tribe’s finances are rock solid and we’ve already secured a loan at 2-percent interest. This would definitely change the face of Peshawbestown and make it a major destination.”

Bird continued, “I’m a little embarrassed by all the politics going on in the tribe right now. The fact is that the Leelanau Sands Casino is doing well even though it doesn’t bring in as much revenue as Turtle Creek (in Grand Traverse County.) The economic development news for the tribe is all good.

“But the Leelanau Sands building is 35 years old and isn’t much more than a glorified pole barn that is not energy-efficient and needs to be replaced,” Bird said.

Foot traffic from the nearby marina would bring customers not only to the casino but also to numerous tribally-owned shops and restaurants in a “strip mall” through Peshawbestown, Bird said.

Costing an estimated $52 million and requiring phased construction over the course of several years, the tribe’s effort is by far the largest economic development project being proposed in Leelanau County.

Leelanau Sands, Bird said, is in need of a makeover or replacement.

“It’s a dark, smoky, windowless old building that was modeled after what they used to build in Las Vegas. But people come to our part of Michigan for the water, so we should have a casino with big windows overlooking the water,” Bird said.

But not all tribal members are for the project, which has been bogged down in election politics.

An “allegation of impropriety” has been filed against the tribe’s Election Board for tossing out a recall petition circulated against Wilson, who favors the project. The allegation will be considered by a panel of tribal judges on a date yet to be determined.

The allegation stems from the Election Board’s decision last month to terminate an effort by tribal members to hold a special election that could result in the recall of Wilson.

Councilor Wilson is the only member of the seven-member Tribal Council who is eligible for recall because he has been in place on the council for more than a year. Last year, tribal voters conducted a nearly clean sweep of their Tribal Council. Of present councilors, only Wilson has served more than a year of their current term.

Tribal regulations allow recall elections of members of the Tribal Council only after they have served one full year of their four-year terms.

When one Tribal Councilor lost his seat in September due to serious health issues, it was up to the Tribal Council to fill the vacancy. Historically, the Tribal Council has selected the next-highest vote getter in the previous election to fill an opening. In this case, that would have been former Tribal Councilor Brian Napont.

A former official of the tribe’s Natural Resources Department, Napont is an outspoken opponent of the development project. Napont has asserted that the development would irreparably harm lake trout spawning grounds in the bay off the tribal reservation in Peshawbestown and endanger the tribe’s treaty fishing rights.

The Tribal Council selected former Tribal Councilor Tom Shomin to fill the vacant seat instead of Napont. Because one seat was vacant, it took only three Tribal Councilors to make that decision. Voting for Shomin were Bird and fellow Tribal Councilors Mark Wilson and David Arroyo. The Tribal Chairman, Thurlow “Sam” McClellan only votes to break a tie.

The Tribal Council’s decision to appoint Shomin instead of Napont prompted former Tribal Chairman Alvin Pedwaydon, former Tribal Councilor Sandra Witherspoon, and Napont, to circulate a petition to recall Wilson, the only Tribal Councilor eligible for recall.

According to a former tribal official, the recall petition alleged that Wilson advocated for granting former Tribal Councilor Derek Bailey a loan for his tribal fishing operation when both were on the Tribal Council. The recall petition also alleged that Wilson was involved in “secret” meetings of Tribal Council members.

Although recall backers gained the requisite number of signatures to put the recall issue on a ballot, the tribe’s Election Board rejected the petition on what tribal members on both sides of the issue acknowledge was a “technicality.”

Now, Napont and others are taking the issue to the Tribal Judiciary.

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