Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

$1.4 million grant sought for road to proposed casino


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Wakefield Township — A six-year-old dream of establishing a hotel and casino complex at the top of Indianhead Mountain in Wakefield Township is inching closer to reality as plans are now in the works to construct a viable road to the proposed site.

Barry Bolich, manager of the Gogebic County Road Commission in Bessemer, said by phone Thursday that the GCRC will apply for a state grant in hopes of “totally” rebuilding Indianhead Road, which connects U.S. 2 to Big Snow Resort’s Indianhead location.

The grant — which might result in about $1.4 million — also would cover the construction of a short, new road to allow drivers to continue from Indianhead Road to the desired hotel and casino site.

Bolich said that the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians in Watersmeet is willing to pay the 30 percent matching requirement within the grant. In 2014, LVD purchased 20 acres of land that then was part of Indianhead in hopes of eventually creating an off-reservation casino, along with a hotel.

“The GCRC will apply for a Category A grant,” said Bolich, who explained that this type of grant offered by the Michigan Department of Transportation relates specifically to transportation improvements that involve job creation.

Bolich said that Coleman Engineering Company in Ironwood will prepare the grant that he expects will be submitted to MDOT by late winter.

He hopes that the state will respond favorably by fall, after which bids could be issued. Actual construction is targeted for 2022.

“That is our tentative time table,” said Bolich, who cautioned that it is contingent upon receiving the funds. “MDOT would oversee the whole project.”

In conversations with the Globe over the past week, officials from LVD, Big Snow Resort, and Wakefield Township all underscored their commitment to the overall plans.

“We’re very excited about it,” said James Williams Jr., tribal chair of LVD, who signed a letter of intent to explore the entire project’s feasibility at the time of the land purchase.

However, regarding the necessity to get federal clearance for a land trust, Williams warned, “It’s a process.”

In order to use the purchased land, the tribe must place the property into a trust in which the U.S. Department of the Interior holds the title for the benefit of tribal members.

“Once you submit it, you can’t take it back, so we’re being very careful how we do it,” said Williams.

He also conceded, “It’s a little more difficult to get land into trust for gaming versus other businesses.”

As a result, he said the tribe might separate trusts. “The gaming one, I would think, would take a little longer,” said the tribal chair.

He added that that, once proper road access is in place, the tribe likely will start with a hotel and other businesses, including possible retail shops.

He speculated that the casino most likely would follow “eventually.”

According to Williams, the tribe is continuing to hone a land use plan with the DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.

So far, the tribe has collaborated with Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump and soon will work with President-elect Joe Biden, who has nominated New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as the first Native American to run the DOI.

“I can’t blame one administration or the other,” said Williams, noting that tribal action is part of the gradual success. “We continue to move forward regardless of who is in place.”

One advantage that could help the tribe is that part of the BIA’s mission, as stated on the DOI website, is to promote economic activity for tribal members.

While working Thursday in Indianhead’s Summit Lodge, Big Snow Resort CEO Matthew Vaughan echoed Williams’ enthusiasm.

“We certainly are trying to move forward as soon as we can,” he said.

Although his resort currently offers a variety of lodging at Indianhead and neighboring Blackjack Mountain, Vaughan noted that he does not view the prospective hotel as competition.

“Right now, in our peak weekends, we’re generally sold out, so we need more lodging,” he said.

Moreover, he said that any new construction is bound to attract even more people to the site. It also will make it easier to market the resort as a year-round retreat.

“We believe that’s going to be a huge industry growth for everybody here,” he said of the pending new hotel and any subsequent operations, which are expected to include conferences.

Vaughan emphasized that solid transportation is definitely a required basis for all other industry success. Years ago, he said that general highway systems leading to this region were not nearly so good as they are now.

“You really had to be committed,” he said of people heading north on earlier highways. Now, however, he claimed that modernized roadways are allowing for safer, quicker routes.

As a result, he said his resort regularly welcomes snow enthusiasts from Chicago, Milwaukee, Minnesota and elsewhere.

John Cox, former Wakefield Township supervisor, shared the same optimism as Vaughan, Williams and Bolich.

“Every board I was on was a 5-0 vote on bringing in a casino,” said Cox, who added that any new facilities on the tribal land next to Indianhead would give travelers back-up entertainment when unfortunate weather conditions prevent them from using the hills.

Cox also explained that the township now gets land taxes for the tribal property next to Indianhead and will continue to do so after any new buildings are constructed and opened.

Moreover, Cox said that Wakefield Township has a longstanding relationship of trust with LVD, which provided $100,000 around the turn of this century for speculation within the township’s industrial park.

Cox said that tribal officials were pleased that the money had been used effectively, as the resulting building continues in use to this day by Extreme Tool and Engineering, Inc.

Although some local folks fear that a future casino could trigger addiction or other criminal activity, Cox said Williams is open to remediation programs and assured of area casinos in general, “They run a pretty tight operation.”

Improvement of local roads, in itself, is always a pleasant prospect for local officials.

Indianhead Mountain Road is a curving, tree-lined drive of about one and one-half miles and — as such — provides an apt introduction to the resort experience.

Current Wakefield Township Supervisor Mandy Lake also relishes the prospect of the road being rebuilt. “That would be great,” she said. “It’s in rough shape.”

Bolich said that the envisioned new road from Indianhead to the hotel site might be as short as one-eighth mile, and an easement is already in place. He added that the site — which he described as “a very nice parcel” — is between Indianhead and Big Snow Resort’s Blackjack Mountain in Bessemer Township.

At this time, the resort provides shuttles so that snow enthusiasts can travel between the two locations. The shuttles now use U.S. 2, but the eventual goal is to construct a later road to connect Blackjack and Indianhead into one big operation.

According to Bolich, the resort already has private driveways within its property, but the new road to the tribal land will be “a Class A Michigan road” for commercial traffic.

Vaughan said the new access road will start between Indianhead’s main lodge and what its employees call the complex buildings, which are rental housing units. Further down from those units is a snowmobile trail, followed by the Summit Lodge and the ski hill.

Williams’ band already operates the Northern Waters Casino Resort in Watersmeet, which is about 46 miles east of Indianhead.

He said that he and his wife, Toni, regularly visit Indianhead, where they stay in a condo at the resort, which features 56 trails and 15 lifts at its two locations.

Vaughan said he now employs about 150 people, many of them part time, during the winter season. Everyone interviewed by the Globe anticipates that LVD’s envisioned facilities will create many more opportunities for employment in construction and in permanent operations.

“I really think it will be a positive thing,” said Williams.