Making a milestone: Little River Casino Resort celebrates 20th anniversary

MANISTEE — It was a herculean effort opening up a casino in Manistee two decades ago on July 21, 1999 — a success story that started with a vision.

The Little River Casino Resort, owned and operated by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians (LRBOI), celebrated a momentous occasion on Sunday with a luncheon. Attendees looked back on 20 years since the Little River Casino Resort officially opened its doors.

Several speakers were featured including Andrew Gentile, general manager of the casino; Bob Guenthardt, who was the first Ogema of the LRBOI; Bill Brooks, a Michigan attorney that assisted with the initiative; LRBOI Ogema Larry Romanelli; and Ron Pete, Tribal council speaker.

Twenty years ago on Sunday, hundreds of LRBOI members gathered at the new Little River Casino to celebrate its opening and for a blessing on the enterprise. A ceremony was held accompanied by song, drum, prayer and a ribbon cutting, and the LRBOI opened the doors of the new interim casino to the tribal membership.

Throughout the entire process, government officials and legal advisers were consulted, an old orchard was purchased, and a groundbreaking ceremony was held in 1998.

The Little River Casino Resort celebrated its 20th anniversary on Sunday. (Ashlyn Korienek/News Advocate)

In a heartfelt speech, Gentile started the celebration on Sunday by recognizing the hard work that played into opening the casino.

“I can only image the amount of hard work and dedication it took to get this off the ground and to be here 20 years later and see where you guys have taken this property; and to know where you are going to go in the future is just amazing,” Gentile said. “I can’t imagine the dedication and patience it might have taken to work through and get this thing started.”

The first Ogema of the tribe — which was recognized by the federal government as a Native Sovereign Nation in 1994 — Guenthardt looked back on the dedication it took to accomplish the project.

“It was a struggle,” he said, “just as we are going through right now with Muskegon, we are in the beginning stage so the stars are going to have to align. We put in a lot of hours. There were times where you’d throw your hands up in the air and say, ‘I’ve had enough.’ I am really proud of how it’s done and the way it came out.”

Guenthardt thanked all of those who played a key role in the project, and recognized those who are making it a success 20 years later.

“The longer you stay with something, you are going to get it done — there’s nothing you can’t do,” he said. “I am going to be really short with my speech. We had a lot of help along the way to get this done, we had a great council to get it done and I hope nothing but the best for the tribe and this organization.”

Playing a pivotal role, attorney Brooks assisted the LRBOI with the development of the casino project. Brooks said he was amazed by the effort put forth by those involved.

“Twenty years — I can’t believe it. That 20 years has brought a lot of success to this tribe,” Brooks said. “Your tribe’s history is about perseverance, and perseverance to overcome obstacles. Your tribe took multiple shots with the federal government to have your status as a sovereign nation recognized.

“The process of moving froward with a casino development, many of you may recall that the first step in that process was a referendum vote by the tribal membership to determine whether you as a community and as a people wanted gaming to be a part of your region’s economic future.”

Brooks mentioned the years it took to get the casino project off the ground, from acquiring property to working through the State Compact process — ratified in 1998.

“It took us five years plus to work trough the compact process,” he said. “Ultimately, we were able to get the state legislature through a lot of effort and Bob was key in that, in getting the governor to strong-arm enough people to leave the room to get a minimum quorum in the state capitol to ratify the compact resolution.

“Once we got that compact submitted to the state it was all systems go. The tribal council shifted gears. The team working together was able to get that project completed and opened in approximately six months, which probably still stands as a record nationwide.”

The Little River Casino — once located where the Next Generation Learning Center stands today — eventually relocated to a larger building constructed next door.

“That was a long effort,” Brooks said. “A lot of that happened because of the collective effort of folks that are still in the room today, and folks who are no longer with us.”

Ogema Romanelli, who has served 12 years in his position, expressed his gratitude to those who support the casino and LRBOI.

“It’s been 4,412 days, 1 hour and 23 minutes since I took office,” Romanelli said. “It really has been a pleasure working with the tribe — I really enjoy it. It’s both very frustrating and very humbling to work for your people. It’s such a great tribe, and the people that came before us put this all together.

“The story has been told multiple times and how it came came together is fantastic and amazing.”

Romanelli told the News Advocate that the casino would not be a continued success without its dedicated employees.

“We really have to give credit to all of the employees of this resort,” he said. “I think there’s a real feel that we are a family. People feel connected. To have this 20 year anniversary is just amazing. We are just so proud of it.”

Thanking two special people, Romanelli said he could not do his job without the help of Mary Thomas, executive assistant, and his wife, Michelle.

“Mary Thomas has served with every one of the Ogemas. I would not be here if she wasn’t there; seriously, she is one of the pillars that has kept me going here,” he said. “The other pillar is my wife, the first lady. People don’t know what they have to go through. Michelle has to give up her schedule to match my schedule.”

Closing the speaking portion of the luncheon, Pete said a prayer and gave some final words before the meal was served.

“I want to really thank everyone, and I mean everyone, that has worked for this resort and the tribal council,” Pete said. “I want to give my sincere congratulations to the tribe and to the staff here across the street, and the incredible staff that makes up your resort.

“I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart; you make up everything and you are everything to me.”

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Posted by Ashlyn Korienek

Ashlyn is the cops & courts and city reporter for the Manistee News Advocate. You can reach her at (231) 398-3109 or akorienek@pioneergroup.com

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