by C.W. Nevius
San Francisco Chronicle
The first thing that hits you when you stroll through the doors of
Casino San Pablo is the low-hanging haze of cigarette fumes. For a
smoke-free state, it's a jolt. How can they get away with this in
"This is Indian land," shrugs an employee. "They can do what they want."
That may not mean much to you. Maybe you don't play two-handed poker or
Pai Gow, or maybe you don't care that the Lytton Band, a 253-member
Indian tribe, was awarded this little chunk of land in the middle of San
Pablo last fall as a reservation.
But you are going to care. Soon.
Here's what's coming at the casino: a massive expansion, a multi-level
parking garage and a super-sized casino. There will be blackjack, video
poker and -- that license to print money that brings in 80 percent of
any casino's business -- slot machines.
What's the big deal, you ask? Maybe you already have visited a casino
like Cache Creek, about 85 miles northeast of Oakland. There are lots of
casinos in California.
The difference is Casino San Pablo will be the first in the state to be
established in the middle of a city. Right up the freeway from Oakland,
just over the bridge from San Francisco, there will be "Las Vegas style"
gaming. Little Reno right here in the East Bay.
And that may be just the start. Critics worry that once a casino is
established within a city, it will open the door for urban casinos
elsewhere in the East Bay.
Indian gaming interests certainly have the clout to get it done. An aide
to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the other day that California's
Indian tribes were hardly noticed five years ago. Today they are one of
the biggest forces in California. How big? State officials have
estimated tribal gaming revenue at between $5 billion and $6 billion a
"But," says Kim Rueben, a public finance economist with the Public
Policy Institute of California, "I would think it is higher than that."
That is what's behind the current negotiations between the governors'
office and six of California's 107 Indian tribes. Schwarzenegger
promised in his campaign for governor to make tribes pay their "fair
share" of gaming taxes. You can bet that when an agreement is announced,
probably within weeks, the tribes will be putting as much as $1 billion
a year into taxes.
Sound good? Sure. Except for what comes with that injection of cash. A
tribal source told a Southern California reporter that with the new
deal, the potential for Indian gaming expansion could be "limitless."
And that little card room in San Pablo will be ground zero. Is that what
the East Bay wants?
"I don't believe in gambling in urban settings," says Contra Costa
County Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier, who introduced a resolution opposing
Indian gaming casinos in the county. "I think it is a deal with the
devil, and you never really recover the costs."
San Pablo City Manager Brock Arner regards such hand wringing with the
same amusement as Capt. Renault, who in the film "Casablanca" told
Humphrey Bogart that he was "shocked, shocked to find that there's
gambling going on here."
"You read the sports pages," Arner says. "You see the betting line every
day. You have never been to the track? Never bought a lottery ticket? My
point is that it seems that, like liquor, gambling is here to stay."
Arner can take you through the math. The city of San Pablo currently
gets $2.6 million from Casino San Pablo, "26 percent of our general
fund. We'd be in a world of hurt if the casino went away." He expects
that figure to jump to $5 million a year when Casino San Pablo expands.
Is it worth it, even though studies show that states with urban casinos
find that they dry up local businesses, use up discretionary income and
Frankly, if you have any concerns, you're too late. The Casino San Pablo
project is essentially a slam-dunk. Tribal attorney Howard Dickstein has
called the project "a virtual certainty," and the governor has made it
clear he has no problem with an urban casino as long as the city agrees.
Agree? San Pablo will probably throw a party.
At this point, the real battle is over the next step. Two months ago NSV
Development snapped up 30 acres along the Richmond Parkway in the
unincorporated community of North Richmond -- less than 5 miles from
Casino San Pablo. This is the same firm that tried, and failed, to get
an Indian casino in the city of Richmond. Now, it is clearly hoping to
work the same kind of deal as the Lytton Band by turning the land over
to a tribe for a casino.
There's the concern that Casino San Pablo is a foot in the door and that
others will pop up, selling residents on easy money for their city,
payments to help balance the state budget and a thriving local business.
There have been proposals for casinos in Antioch, Richmond and even
Oakland, where Mayor Jerry Brown is enthusiastic about the idea.
"The thing that concerns me," says Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt,
"is that people look on these silver bullets. Forget the tried and true
We'll get a casino, and everything will be OK."
Butt may remember the last time gambling was going to pump millions into
California -- when the lottery was going to save our schools.