When it comes to building new casinos in California, it is all about the money! The Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla Indians in rural North San Diego County and the city of Barstow in San Bernardino County are eyeing each other to help improve their bottom line. Like all cities and counties, Barstow is in financial crisis. Looking for revenue, the city council is exploring the possibility of approving the first Indian Casino to be built on non-tribal land.
The city council of Barstow recently held a public hearing regarding the Los Coyotes Band’s proposal to build a casino in the dying town of 22,000 residents with an unemployment rate of nearly 18 percent. In a town where 47 percent of residents receive some type of government assistance, the promise of a new tax revenue source and new jobs is very appealing.
According to the tribe, the casino project would create more than 1,000 construction jobs and about 820 permanent jobs once the casino is built. But since the tribes in California are allowed to give hiring preferences to tribal members, it remains to be seen how many local residents would actually be hired away from public assistance programs.
Barstow's mayor and council members support the project; a $160 million casino with 57,000 square feet of gaming space and 1,325 slot machines on Interstate 15, the route Southern California gamblers use to get to Las Vegas.
The Los Coyotes tribe and its Detroit-based partners, BarWest LLC, want to build the new gambling Mecca of the desert. Plans also call for a 100 room hotel, conference space and other amenities on a 23-acre parcel of non-tribal land that BarWest owns - which is perfectly placed near an outlet mall a few miles south of downtown Barstow.
Location, Location, Location
A bad economic climate and location seem to be the driving forces behind anyone even entertaining the notion of what may be the first Indian casino being built outside a tribe's ancestral lands. But the prime location is also what may defeat the project before it even gets started.
When CA voters approved gaming on tribal lands, the pact with the government stated that casinos had to be built on land in which a tribe has cultural ties. The Los Coyotes tribe has no ties to the Barstow region, which is a big hurdle to getting approval from state and federal governments. Location raises the question: if the proposed casino would violate the original voter-approved proposition that only allowed Las Vegas-style gambling on Indian reservations.
Barstow Councilman Jim Silva said, “This (project) will definitely help out by tapping into what I call Barstow's natural resource: our location." He also stated at the hearing, "Barstow's location on Interstate 15, halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, would provide the tribe with a perfect location to capture business from the millions of cars traveling along the highway to and from a gambling destination."
While the council and residents in attendance were mostly in favor of the casino, because of the money to be made, there are many on the opposite side of the fence including lawmakers.
The Anti-Gambling League
If approved, the casino could be the first off-reservation tribal gambling operation in California, but the biggest hurdles all involve getting the state and federal government to give it the green light.
First, the tribe has to persuade the federal government to take the 23-acre parcel in Barstow into trust which basically makes the property part of the tribe's reservation. That is a big hurdle since their actual 25,000-acre reservation is 170 miles due west, near Warner Springs, a remote section of San Diego County.
If the Los Coyotes can clear the location hurdle, they must then negotiate a gambling agreement with Gov. Jerry Brown. If they get past the Governor, the agreement would have to be approved by the Legislature. Making those hurdles higher and harder to jump are many politicians who oppose building casinos away from a tribes’ reservations.
Since the whole tribal casino idea as first tossed around years ago in CA, the federal government can’t seem to decide on a clear stance on off-reservation gambling. There are a few politicians however that take any and every opportunity to rally against gambling in any form - like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-San Francisco.
It is no surprise that along with Feinstein’s biased, narrow-minded, and uninformed opinions which spur her fight against online poker being legalized; she introduced a bill late last year that would ban tribes from taking land into trust unless those tribes had cultural ties to the land. She was vehemently opposed to another tribe that made a bid to build a casino in her back yard, hence her introducing her new bill – an effort to stop gambling expansion. If passed, Feinstein’s bill would also apply to the Los Coyotes proposal and squash the whole thing.
Pros and Cons
Los Coyotes Chairman Shane Chapparosa who represents the 328-member tribe said that ‘many tribal members have left the reservation looking for better job opportunities.’ His argument in favor of the project, citing the numbers of members who have already moved off the reservation to find work seems thin. The fact is; members wanting to work at the new casino would have to move to Barstow – away from the reservation. Chapparosa’s vision of hundreds of jobs, not just for tribal members but for many residents of Barstow, no doubt has residents who can’t find a job excited.
Marilyn Welker, a 61 year resident of Barstow said, "I support the casino, very much so. Many of our local businesses are moving out. Our town has just become a ghost town."
Groups opposing the new casino include other CA Indian tribes like the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe on the California side of Lake Havasu. Chemehuevi Chairman Charles Wood, spoke against the project at the hearing saying the tribe should have a legitimate claim to the land, which the Los Coyotes don’t have. He stated that his tribe also would like to build a casino in Barstow and "We support Indian gaming in Barstow, we just don't support this venture."
The leaders of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians (which owns the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino near Fresno) were also at the hearing in Barstow to voice their opposition. "With the propositions that we passed, we promised to keep gaming on Indian land," said Dora Jones, vice chairwoman of the Chukchansi tribe. "The city of Barstow is not tribal land, the city of San Francisco, downtown LA, they are not tribal lands."
The biggest fear of other CA tribes seems to be that off-reservation casinos would create unfair competition. This is an amusing stance for a group that many California card room owners see as the single biggest offenders when it comes to unfair competition.
Under California law, Nevada style gaming is the sole privilege of tribes, so while independently owned poker rooms can only offer poker, tribal casinos can offer everything from poker and slots to blackjack. With such offerings being denied them, CA card rooms have been struggling for years just to stay in business against the overwhelming competition from the big tribal casinos. The opinions of many gamblers and all small poker room operators in CA is that the tribes have had the exclusive handle on casinos for long enough, the state should just open up gaming like Nevada.
Others opposed to the casino idea are some Barstow business owners who also cite unfair competition. Because of their status as a sovereign nation, tribes are exempt from many rules regular businesses like hotels and restaurants have to follow, such as collecting sales and room taxes. Barstow residents and business owners fear this will hurt local established businesses - that do have to collect the taxes, an expense paid by the customer.
It is doubtful the Los Coyotes will win their bid to build a casino away from their tribal home, especially with people like Senator Feinstein blocking their path. But if they do succeed, it could swell the ranks of tribal casinos in CA from 58 currently in operation to hundreds and hopefully - one will be in Feinstein’s backyard.