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Richmond casino fight turns to Washington, D.C.

By John Simerman
Contra Costa Times

Posted: 11/29/2009 12:00:00 AM PST

Updated: 11/29/2009 04:53:40 AM PST

 

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Some of the loudest East Bay voices against a major Indian casino-resort on the Richmond waterfront are fast turning mute.

And while the Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians and the developer credit the quality of the plan and their attention to local concerns backed by big-money pledges opponents find themselves grasping for fresh strategies and loyal political allies.

Contra Costa County, once the sharpest local thorn in the side of Indian casino plans, now supports the project for the former Point Molate Naval Fuel Depot. County supervisors agreed this month to a deal for $12 million a year if the resort gets built. Environmental groups that sued over the project, meanwhile, are deep in talks with the developer on an eight-figure deal to bolster their shoreline dreams.

Planned for the scenic, 266-acre site is a casino with thousands of slot machines, two hotels, a convention center and retail complex, trails, parks and tribal facilities.

With local opposition in retreat, critics of Las Vegas-style gambling in West Contra Costa are now hanging their hopes on Congress.

"Right now our biggest allies are probably Senators Feinstein and Boxer. It's unfortunate local leadership hasn't shown the same kind of courage," said Andres Soto, a Richmond activist with the Coalition to Save Point Molate, a group supported by local card clubs.

The action is at the Interior Department, where the Obama administration is reviewing federal policy on placing new land into trust for tribes, including those that want casinos.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a steady critic of casino expansion in urban areas, recently joined Sen. Barbara Boxer, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other senators in a letter urging Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to closely scrutinize tribes seeking "off-reservation" casinos.

A similar plea came this month from 27 House members, including several from California.

Not among them: Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez. His district includes Point Molate and the North Richmond area where another tribe, the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians, seeks casino rights along Richmond Parkway.

Miller is staying out of it, according to his chief of staff, Danny Weiss.

"Members of Congress and senators do not have a role in that process," Weiss said in an e-mail.

In 2000, Miller taxied legislation through Congress granting the land under the Casino San Pablo card club to the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians. It may have saved the city San Pablo reaps two-thirds of its general fund from Lytton and its electronic bingo machines but Miller took heavy heat for sidestepping the Interior process. That's probably why he's mum on a hot-button issue in his district, say both sides in the debate.

"Miller's staying neutral on it," Soto said. "By being neutral, it's tacit approval."

Mixed signals from governor

Soto named Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger among those who could influence a federal decision against the project. But the governor's actions send conflicting messages.

Schwarzenegger's top legal adviser last month urged federal officials to kill the Point Molate plan, arguing in a sharply worded letter that it would violate the good faith of voters and could threaten the constitutionality of Proposition 1A, the 2000 state ballot measure authorizing gaming on Indian land.

Yet Schwarzenegger could have stymied the Point Molate plan on his own, by keeping his pen capped.

Instead, he signed off in September on the early transfer of the 41-acre linchpin of the project from the Navy to Richmond. Under federal law, the governor's permission was required to allow the Navy to turn over land without first completing environmental cleanup. With his signature, Schwarzenegger said he wanted to "help the City of Richmond accelerate the conversion of the former Naval Fuel Depot Point Molate into an economic development project."

The city is pursuing just one economic development project there: the tribal casino resort.

For his signature, the Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board sent the governor a thick package of documents that clearly described the "conversion of land use to gaming casino." A briefing paper outlined the casino project, and the package included developer Upstream Point Molate's deal with the city.

The Navy has paid the city $28.5 million for the cleanup, with Upstream to kick in another $4 million.

Schwarzenegger's action on the transfer "gives me confidence," said Jim Levine of Upstream.

"He signed that himself. There was a lot of staff review," he said. "The governor's got oars on both sides of the boat. He can pull whichever one he wants."

Schwarzenegger "has once again proved to speak with a forked tongue," chided Soto.

'Cleaning up California'

A spokesman for the governor denied any mixed message.

"One thing doesn't have anything to do with the other," spokesman Jeff Macedo said. "The important part is obtaining that land so we're cleaning up California. We don't want to have polluted lands in our community. This just happens to be one of those lands. That said, the governor is against urban gaming. He does not support a casino at Point Molate."

It was one of eight early land transfers from the military that Schwarzenegger has approved in office, and the only one this year, state figures show. Without it, the Navy would have kept the 41 acres indefinitely. The regional water district ordered a cleanup, but the Navy was pushing for a less intensive, far slower one, said George Leyva, the water district's program manager for the Point Molate cleanup.

"The Navy's proposal involved leaving that (contamination) in place and letting natural attenuation finish the cleanup, which would have been 100 years. But in that 100 years that land would have remained fenced off and unusable," Leyva said.

Few if any local interests wanted that fate for the land. But the early transfer was timed to the tribe's pending bid for federal approval and an approaching deadline for Richmond to turn over the land to Upstream.

"I think the governor is like everybody else. He's against it until he cuts a deal for money," Richmond Councilman Tom Butt said. "You don't know anymore. Everybody's against it, but you don't know if its real, or posturing for more money."

Tribal influence, money

Once backed by Harrah's, Guidiville and Upstream now claim major financing from the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, which operates Cache Creek Casino Resort in Yolo County.

The strongest force working against the project, meanwhile, may have little concern about toxics, traffic, crime, gambling addiction or other evils that opponents predict. Casino tribes are flexing their political muscle to stave off urban rivals, lobbying members of Congress and top Interior officials.

Among them is the California Tribal Business Alliance, which includes Lytton, the tribe that operates Thunder Valley Casino in Lincoln and some politically active Southern California gaming tribes.

The group opposes any federal policy that would grant casino rights to tribes on land they never occupied, arguing that any policy that would allow Guidiville or Scotts Valley to build a casino would open the floodgates to urban casinos elsewhere particularly in California, where quirks of history and decades of federal injustice bred dozens of small, landless tribes.

"It's such a sticky issue, and everything (federal officials) seem to do that makes sense everywhere else doesn't make sense in California," said Allison Harvey, executive director of the alliance. "So they can't quite figure out what to do, I think. But they're getting an earful."

As city vote nears, critics seek leverage on Point Molate plan

By John Simerman
Contra Costa Times

Posted: 11/27/2009 12:59:07 PM PST

Updated: 11/28/2009 05:37:52 PM PST

 

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RICHMOND While federal officials have the final say, critics of the Indian casino resort slated for Point Molate are taking a last stab at City Hall, hoping to wheedle concessions even if they can't defeat the plan.

The City Council still must certify an environmental review that critics say is deeply flawed and ripe for challenge. The report cites soil erosion, traffic trouble and other potential impacts, listing a host of fixes. But some effects such as leveling or moving a national historic building are unavoidable, the report says. So the council may need to adopt a "statement of overriding considerations."

That, some say, is where Richmond can wield leverage.

City Councilman Tom Butt, for one, said his yes vote may hinge on developer Upstream Point Molate agreeing to save more historic buildings, sweeten the city's financial deal, allow more public review of the design and safeguard the city against long delays or inaction.

"As it gets close to the end, there are a lot of issues that need to be resolved," Butt said. "We don't have to do a project that can't be mitigated."

Tribe solidifying support

The developer remains reluctant to make major changes.

"I come from the old school. When you make a deal with somebody, you honor it," Jim Levine, of Upstream, said. "At the same time, we're practical, and we're in discussions with the city on resolving some outstanding issues."

A council majority seems to favor a project that promises more than $16 million in annual city revenue and thousands of jobs for residents.

Upstream and the Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians have also pledged $12 million a year to Contra Costa County for its support. And, in a developing deal with Citizens for East Shore Park and other green groups, tens of millions of casino dollars would go to shoreline projects.

The payments are not payoffs, Levine insisted. The county deal covers estimated health and public safety impacts and more while the tribe and environmental groups lately have found common ground, he said.

"The environmentalists basically talked about their mission and their dreams, and the set of dreams they talked about were dreams that the tribe and us related to," he said.

Legal attacks likely

But opposition remains. Bay Area card rooms, the East Bay Regional Park District and San Pablo all have hinted at legal action.

Card rooms say the casino resort would nullify Proposition 1A, the 2000 ballot measure that granted Indian tribes a monopoly on slot machines and other Las Vegas-style action on mostly rural Indian lands.

The park district claims the plan clashes with regional goals for open space and outdoor recreation and that the environmental review shortchanges aesthetics, eel grass beds and burrowing owl habitat.

"If it goes into a tribal designation, how do we get our issues addressed? This is the only shot the public gets," said Bob Doyle, assistant general manager for the district. "Our charge is a magnificent and spectacular shoreline. It has been abused by lots of uses, including the Navy, for decades. It needs to be looked at not just for jobs and gambling."

San Pablo argues that a competing casino would foster urban decay, gnawing at police, recreation and other vital services funded by $12 million in annual revenue from Lytton San Pablo Casino and its electronic bingo games. City Manager Brock Arner said he met with Upstream a few weeks ago but got nowhere.

"We're not at a meeting of the minds at all," he said.

Levine insists the two casinos would serve vastly different clientele in a big gambling market.

"If you own a Denny's, and a Ritz-Carlton opened up," he crowed, "there's a different customer base."

Staff writer Katherine Tam contributed to this story.