Pokagons eye South Bend for casino

The Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi Indians would like to construct casino on the southwest part of South Bend.
Posted on Aug. 28, 2012 at 1:00 a.m.

SOUTH BEND — Leaders of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians confirmed they are looking to develop land on the south side of South Bend that could include a casino.

The tribe owns 164 acres southwest of the U.S. 31 and U.S. 20 interchange in South Bend and has begun the legal steps necessary to have it recognized as a “trust” with the federal government — a move that would grant the tribe more authority over the land, said a spokesman for the Pokagons.

The tribe filed notice of intention with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Federal Register Friday, according to Matt Wesaw, chairman of the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi Indians.

According to paperwork filed with the U.S. Department of Interior, the tribe indicated a desire to develop the land for housing, health services and a tribal government facility. It also mentions potential development of a casino, hotel, restaurants and a parking garage.

The Pokagons operate two casinos in southwest Michigan, including the Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, Mich., and have proposed a third.

Wesaw downplayed inclusion of the casino in the paperwork. He said some of those items were included because of the nature of the multi-use application.

The tribe seeks to establish homes and community services to support the tribe members, he said.

He said close to 1,000 members of the tribe live in Indiana, but was unsure how many reside in St. Joseph County.

“We've got a pretty good reputation as being a good neighbor,” Wesaw said. “A lot of people don't think about the fact that this is our home. We're not just people that have just moved in.”

He said he realizes some people will view it as simply a plan to construct a casino.

“People are entitled to their opinion,” Wesaw said. “But if they look at the relationships that we have in Michigan ... we have a pretty good reputation of being true to our word.”

A spokesman for the city of South Bend said they were aware of the tribe's interest.

“The city has had positive, early dialogue with the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and its leadership. This federal action is a first step toward the Pokagon Band becoming more involved in our community and we will continue to communicate with them as they move forward,” said Mike Schmuhl, chief of staff for Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

A public hearing on the issue is scheduled for Sept. 27 at the Century Center in downtown South Bend. The meeting will be hosted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the tribe and is part of an environmental impact statement needed for approval of the trust. The impact statement will look at a broad range of issues.

Ernest Yelton, executive director of the Indiana Gaming Commission, said he learned of the request Tuesday.

The state has received inquiries in the past from tribes seeking to establish a casino in Indiana, but the efforts were quickly slowed by the lack of property owned in Indiana by groups inquiring with the state, Yelton said.

“This is far more concrete than anything we've seen since I've been here,” said Yelton, who has been with the state agency since 2005.

Wesaw said land off Locust Road south of Ireland Road, where the tribe hopes to develop, was purchased during the past four years and some of the acquisitions occurred earlier this year.

None of the 13 gaming facilities in Indiana are operated by tribal groups.

Indiana oversees 11 casinos and two “racinos” at horse tracks, but there hasn't been any expansion for three years, Yelton said.

The gaming industry continues to expand in the Midwest, though. Michigan has 22 casinos. Ohio has seen two casinos recently open and two more are in the works.

But in Illinois, the governor on Tuesday vetoed gaming expansion plans that would have seen the number casinos rise from 10 to 15.

Yelton said there is a sense among some in Indiana that the gaming market is fairly saturated.

The Pokagons expressed an interest in establishing a casino in northern Indiana about 14 years ago, but South Bend leaders at the time formally opposed the plan, according to a story by the Associated Press from 1998.

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