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County Warms Up to Gaming

Contra Costa County shifts course, turns to tribes for cash

By John Simerman
Contra Costa Times

Posted: 10/08/2009 04:34:47 PM PDT

Updated: 10/08/2009 06:02:13 PM PDT

 

Click photo to enlarge

 

The site where the Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians are proposing a casino at Pt. Moloate in...

http://extras.mnginteractive.com/live/media/site571/2009/1008/20091008__ecct1009casinocash%7E1_VIEWER.JPGhttp://extras.mnginteractive.com/live/media/site571/2009/1008/20091008__ecct1009casinocash%7E2_VIEWER.JPG

Red ink has a way of shifting priorities.

Bathing in it, Contra Costa County officials are turning to the same Indian tribes with whom for years they have battled over plans for Las Vegas-style casino developments in and around Richmond.

County Administrator David Twa and other officials plan to meet Friday with the Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians to begin formal talks over how much the tribe might pay the county should it win federal approval for a hotel-casino destination resort on former Navy land at picturesque Point Molate.

With a signed deal between the county and tribe, that approval might come easier.

Separately, the county has tentative plans for similar talks with the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians, said county Supervisor John Gioia, whose territory includes unincorporated North Richmond. Scotts Valley aims to build a mega-casino there, at Richmond Parkway and Parr Boulevard.

Whether the county would give up a threat of lawsuits or its caustic opposition to the casino projects remains unclear. But the promise of casino bucks and the flip-side fear of a further strain on services with no one to pay for it has the county in a strategic pivot.

Twa wrote the Guidiville tribe last month asking for a series of meetings before Oct. 30. That's the final date for the county to submit its comments on the draft environmental review for the Point Molate casino resort project. Twa said progress toward a signed agreement "could certainly have some impact" on the county's critique of the project with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"The board's official position still is: We're opposed to Indian gaming. However, they've also authorized me to at least have some discussions with the tribe to see where they might lead," Twa said.

Both tribes have historic ties north, in Lake and Mendocino counties, and critics have charged them with "reservation-shopping." The county has joined in, spending close to $1 million to fight the tribes, hiring lawyers, funding studies and paying an anthropologist to dispute their claims of a local historic link.

In the meantime, both tribes have turned to Richmond for support, inking deals that would pay the city hundreds of million dollars if the casinos rise. A judge last year invalidated the city's deal with the Scotts Valley tribe, saying it violated state environmental laws when it agreed to a 20-year, $335 million pact for services.

The county's new openness could mean more of those dollars going to the county for police, fire and other services, said political consultant Eric Zell, who represents the 220-member Scotts Valley tribe.

"We think it's a good sign the county is willing to talk," Zell said. "I don't think it's just budget related. I think it's a more a function of their belief there's a chance that these projects are going to happen, and if they happen the county should make sure their services are addressed."

Gioia said he remains against Indian casinos here, but that the county's leverage may be greatest before the Department of Interior makes key rulings on the casino projects. Both tribes are seeking exemptions to a federal law that bars gaming on Indian land acquired after 1988. The exemptions are rarely granted, but the Obama administration is reviewing the process and has yet to clarify how it intends to act.

The federal process leaves little room for local input until the end, when the Secretary of Interior must decide whether to take the land into trust for the tribes. A county shift from opposition to tacit support could matter then. But without a signed deal, Gioia said, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger or a future governor might ignore the county's costs when negotiating gaming compacts with the tribes.

"There's an opportunity to receive more than we would later in the process," he said. "There's a fair amount of gamble and risk in all of this. We are taking a really cautious approach."

Richmond resident Andres Soto, a leader of a group opposed to the Guidiville project, said Twa's letter to the tribe raised alarm bells, but that Gioia assured them the county remains opposed.

Any money for mitigation would focus on West Contra Costa, but the county's overall fiscal plight weighs heavily. Since the economy unraveled last year, supervisors have cut spending by about $150 million, slicing staff and carving into the core of health and social services.

"We're living in a reality of a service system falling apart," Gioia said. "Our goal is not to just mitigate the impacts (of the casino projects), but to get more."

Local unions have thrown their support behind the casino projects, particularly the Point Molate plan, which promises thousands of construction jobs and about 12,000 direct positions. Scotts Valley claims its "Sugar Bowl" project would create 2,300 full- and part-time positions at the casino.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Bonilla described the change in strategy as less a shift than a "natural progression."

"As the project has moved along and as time has moved along, it is I just think wise for the county to sit down and have a clear dialogue," she said. "Ultimately we want the best for the community. It's more complex than just money."

A representative of the 112-member Guidiville tribe said he's confident the two sides can reach a deal.

"We've been trying for a long time to get the county to see they're better off negotiating with us instead of spending a lot of lawyer time and money trying to intervene in our federal approval process," said Michael Derry, CEO of Guidiville's economic development corporation. "It's a very practical shift, actually, and a very positive shift. We don't want to impact anybody."

Hoping to dissolve legal opposition, Guidiville is in settlement talks with environmental group Citizens for East Shore Parks, which sued Richmond, the developer and the tribe over the early transfer of land from the U.S. Navy.

Derry said the tribe doesn't figure the county will embrace its plan at least not yet.

"Once they feel comfortable, they can maybe look at the merits of the project open-mindedly," he said. "When people do that, they usually come out in support of it. We're not expecting they do. We hope they do."

Reach John Simerman at 925-943-8072.

By the numbers: West Contra Costa casino plans
Point Molate
Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians
124,000 square feet of gaming with 4,000 slot machines
122,000 square-foot conference center
48,000 square foot entertainment center
1,100 rooms in two hotels
Eight-story parking structure for 5,000 cars, plus 2,500-space underground parking
Tribal offices, dance grounds and housing
145 acres of hillside open space with trails and picnic areas

"Sugar Bowl"
Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians
30 acres at Richmond Parkway and Parr Boulevard
79,000 square feet gaming area with 2,000 machines
1,500-seat event center
250-seat entertainment lounge
600-seat buffet
150-seat sports bar
Surface parking for 1,505 vehicles

Source: Documents submitted to federal Bureau of Indian Affairs