More Casinos May Go Off The Reservation

By Samantha Gallegos

Special report from Capitol Weekly

An off-reservation tribal casino has been approved in California for the first time, but there’s more to come: Three others are contemplated across the state from northern California to nearly the Mexican border.

Weeks ago the legislature approved the governor’s compact with the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians to begin constructing a 2,000-slot machine casino in Madera County, over 30 miles from tribe’s historic lands. The agreement culminated lengthy and complex negotiations, not only between the tribe and the government, but between the tribes themselves. 

The dispute is far from over: an anti-casino group already plans to place a referendum before voters to block the project.

Others are in the works for in Enterprise in Yuba County, Barstow in San Bernardino County and Calexico in Imperial County. An off-reservation casino already is under construction in Rohnert Park and is expected to be completed in the fall.

“There’s a healthy debate about whether casinos are good or bad for a community,” said David Tooley, Madera’s City Administrator. “But from an employment standpoint and from a revenue standpoint, I would have to say the City of Madera and Madera County would see an economic benefit.”  

“In a city that has chronic unemployment, just the impact of the construction alone would be significant,” Tooley added. 

The North Folks casino stems from an agreement – or compact – approved by the tribe and Gov. Jerry Brown, a document that was then ratified by both houses of the Legislature. 

Although attention on the state’s gaming rules typically focuses on the governor because of his compact authority, his power actually isn’t that sweeping, one critic of the Madera casino said.

“The role of the governor is very limited in the state of California…relative to other states. [He] lacks the authority to grant concurrence for gaming off of Indian lands,” said Cheryl Schmit, who leading the effort for a referendum. Her campaign committee, called Keep Vegas-Style Casinos Out of Neighborhoods, is an extension of the long-time tribal gaming interest group Stand Up For California. 

Congress legalized tribal gaming in 1988, but according to some interpretations of the law this only applied to lands belonging to tribes prior to that date. 

Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a “two-part” determination process can be taken by tribes to put land into trust with approval of the federal government. The governor then negotiates a compact that both houses of Legislature must ratify.   

“It’s incredibly difficult. Only a handful of tribes in the nation in the last 25 years have done it, and they have done it in the way that North Fork has done it and how Enterprise is doing it,” said Charles Banks-Altekruse a spokesman for Enterprise Rancheria, which has been on a path parallel to North Fork in recent years. 

Enterprise is working to establish a casino on land between Wheatland and Marysville in Yuba County. About thirty miles away from the tribe’s historically recognized lands. 

Last year, the governor concurred with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs’ favorable determination on the Estom Yumeka Maidu Tribe of the Enterprise Rancheria’s gaming project. 

North Fork’s approval came earlier, allowing the governor and tribe to start compact negotiations to be sent to the Legislature for ratification. 

Just weeks ago, both houses approved the Madera County casino. But that’s not the end of a process that already has taken years.  

Soon after the casino’s approval, Schmit established the referendum committee to put the issue before the voters.

“If we’re going to have one man make a determination that he can put a casino anywhere,” said Schmit, “certainly the citizens of the state of California deserve to have a voice—a vote—in whether or not they want to expand tribal gaming into more urban and metropolitan areas.”

The committee has already banked in a little more than $515,000 in contributions, nearly half of which come from Fresno tribe Table Mountain Rancheria, which operates a casino and restaurants.

“We’re just a regular little community group and [our donations] are from citizens’ groups. This year, since the referendum is a statewide campaign, you have to set up a committee for that,” said Schmit, “and anyone can contribute to that committee.”

In Calexico, local and county officials, including planners and supervisors, have given support for the casino project, which has been in the works since at least 2005, but the final approvals have not been obtained.

The tribal application to have land set aside in trust was before the federal government; after federal approval, which is expected, the package goes to Brown. 

The Calexico casino, if ultimately approved, would be a 220,000-square-foot facility on 60 acres in the city of Calexico and operated by the Manzanita Band of Kumeyaay Indians, and would be about 100 miles from the tribal reservation. Original plans called for 2,000 slot machines and a 260-room hotel.

Meanwhile, Barstow is another town waiting to see whether a casino will be approved.

“We have so much support from the governor’s office, from the county, from the surrounding cities — we have so much support we even went to the ballot in 2006 with Measure H,” said Shane Chapparosa, chairman of the Los Coyotes Band of Mission Indians. 

His tribe is currently waiting on the Interior Department to approve land in Barstow for another gaming project. “We won our ballot, by 82 percent. Hopefully now with North Fork and Enterprise, it might open some doors for us too,” Chapparosa said.

Chapparosa recalled his tribe’s experience back in 2006, when he said significant opposition came from major gaming tribes.  

Los Coyotes even supported these same tribes, according to Chapparosa, in commercial campaigns for Propositions 5 and 1a — proposed laws in the late ‘90s and early 2000s that were related to tribal casino gaming.  

“Our tribe was the poster child for those commercials that showed troubled members and how we lived at that time,” Chapparosa said. “We had no electricity and we had no clean water…over 65 percent [live] under the poverty line. When it was our turn to come up to bat, we were kind of beat down by all the big gaming tribes we had supported back in the early 2000s. So that kind of hurt me.”

“They’ve gone through the slow, painful, and arduous process to restore some of their tribal resources and land,” Charles Banks-Altekruse said. “They’ve done it according to the letter and spirit of the law. Now even when they do that, they keep getting knocked down.” 

All involved in the efforts to build off-reservation casinos agree that it’s not easy.

“The reality is these tribes don’t have any land on which to build new casinos, so they have to petition new land,” said Banks-Altekruse. “They did it this way and they’re still getting slammed for it.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story referred to North Forks as first off-reservation casino. The fourth paragraph has been updated to make reference to the Rohnert Park casino under construction currently.

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