July 7, 2009 at 11:32 am

Gaming in Michigan

Tribe takes big gamble on new casino

Battle Creek's FireKeepers set to open despite poor economy

The FireKeepers Casino in Battle Creek boasts 2,680 slot machines and 78 table games that include roulette, craps and blackjack. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)

Battle Creek --A little more than a year ago, drivers passing Exit 104 on Interstate 94 gazed onto corn fields that had been there for generations.

But recently, the electric glow of the mega-sign marking the location of the new FireKeepers Casino was deemed too bright for passing motorists, so it was dimmed.

The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi hopes the future of the state's newest gambling facility will be just as bright.

Scheduled to open early next month, FireKeepers Casino is a $300 million gamble for a small tribe during a big recession that has brought larger, more experienced gaming operations to their knees.

"We're just happy we're opening," said Laura Spurr, chairwoman of the 1,000-member tribe, which spent 10 years battling legal blockades to open FireKeepers.

"We think we're at the right place at the right time with the right people."

The casino is one of the most ambitious tribal casino projects embarked upon in Michigan. While other facilities such as Soaring Eagle near Mount Pleasant opened to great success, Detroit's three non-tribal casinos -- MGM Grand Detroit, MotorCity Casino and Greektown Casino-Hotel -- have struggled in the past year as consumers pull back on discretionary spending.

In big gambling meccas, Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J., year-over-year gaming revenues have declined by double-digit percentages since last year.

"It's a tough time for all casinos, and newcomers are no exception," said Bill Eadington, a gaming expert based at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "But the good thing about the economy is that it will bounce back. It's just a question of how quickly."

In the troubles of others, Spurr and her tribe see potential.

For one, the casino created 1,500 full- and part-time jobs at a time when Battle Creek -- like much of the state -- is struggling with a high unemployment rate, up to 12.7 percent in May, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That's just a touch less than the state average of 14.1 percent, which is heavily influenced by the scores of jobless in southeast Michigan.

The jobs were filled by tribal members and other locals. FireKeepers also is expected to have a positive spinoff impact, especially with local hotels.

The hulking building alongside I-94, the heavily traveled interstate connecting Detroit and Chicago, is designed with a distinctively upscale flair, eschewing the "pole barn" look of less-expensive tribal ventures common in the Upper Peninsula.

The three Detroit casinos, plus Soaring Eagle in Mount Pleasant and the Four Winds casino of the Pokagon Band in New Buffalo, are all less than a two-hour drive from FireKeepers.

At FireKeepers, millions were spent on touches like a light show that's integrated with the casino-wide progressive jackpot promotion, as well as hundreds of plasma screens. The tribe elected to stick with a theme of natural elements -- earth, wind, water and fire -- instead of following the modern Las Vegas trend of kitsch-free chic.

"We spent a lot of time looking at fit and finish and what would make customers most happy," said Bruce McKee, the casino's general manager. The result, he said, is a casino that's brighter and much cheerier inside than a traditional gambling hall.

The Potawatomi also decided to go big, much bigger, in fact, than most of the other tribal casino brethren. The gaming floor itself measures 107,000 square feet, a bit larger than MGM Grand Detroit's gambling space. The facility has five restaurants, including a buffet, as well as a sports bar and cabaret.

There's a VIP area for high-rollers, a large and well-lit poker room and thousands of state-of-the-art slot machines, as well as 78 table games.

One notable absence is an on-site hotel. Spurr said the tribe opted to hold off on offering accommodations for now, but isn't ruling it out for the future.

"After waiting for so long to get started, we just needed to start building as soon as possible," Spurr said. "But we're only using about half of the land we have here. We've got more than enough room to expand when the time is right."

nhurst@detnews.com">nhurst@detnews.com (313) 222-2293

The FireKeepers cabaret includes a small stage and is made of huge panels ... (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)
Lights had to be dimmed on the sign to keep from distracting drivers on ... (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)
The FireKeepers Casino in Battle Creek is almost 90 percent complete and ... (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)