County ready to back Point Molate casino plan

By John Simerman, Contra Costa Times
Sunday, November 01, 2009

For $12 million a year, Contra Costa County would turn its staunch opposition to outright support for a major Indian casino-hotel resort on the Richmond waterfront, according to a draft of the pending deal.

The agreement with the Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians would erase the county’s blanket opposition to urban gaming and halt its attack against a big Las Vegas-style casino planned at the former Point Molate Naval Fuel Depot.

The Board of Supervisors plans to discuss the pending deal at its meeting Tuesday morning and likely will hold another public hearing before a decision.

The tribe and developer Upstream Point Molate await key federal rulings in a bid to claim 266 acres near the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge as an Indian reservation. They envision 124,000 square feet of gaming, two hotels, 300,000 square feet of retail, a conference center, parks and trails, tribal facilities and as many as 340 homes.

Under the deal, the county would agree to “cease all efforts to oppose or intervene against the tribe’s project approvals” and would document its support.

Supervisor John Gioia, who led both the county opposition and its reversal, said the county could lose leverage and be left with nothing if it did not seek a deal before pending federal decisions on the land.

He said the deal would draw the county as much as $7 million more per year than the expected health, pubic safety and other costs from the project.

“I think the agreement gets the community and the county more than it would get if we waited until the end of the process to negotiate,” he said.

With the money, he said, “there is some potential for this project to create some benefit for the community.”

One longtime Richmond resident who has fought against the Point Molate plan said Gioia assured him in early October that the negotiations did not change the county’s position.

“I’m shocked,” Charles Smith said. “Why he changed his mind, all of this stuff is a mystery to me.”

Ultimately, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has the power to put the land in trust for the tribe. Interior Department policy stresses deals between tribes and local governments, and Guidiville has a pact with Richmond that would pay the city $20 million a year.

“The feedback we’ve gotten from the folks at Interior is that our project is really unique and is approvable,” said Jim Levine of Upstream. “Obviously, if you have local support things go smoother.”

The county has spent nearly $1 million battling Guidiville and two other tribes over casinos. The Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians wants one along Richmond Parkway. The Lytton Band of Pomo Indians runs electronic bingo machines on its land in San Pablo, but would likely try to expand with slot machines if competition comes near.

The county also is talking with Scotts Valley about an agreement.

Unions are pressing for the Point Molate project, which promises thousands of construction and service jobs. Opponents fear a trio of big casinos in West County.

“This certainly is a break in the dam,” said Cheryl Schmit of Stand Up for California, a casino watchdog. “We have a lot of tribes out there. If it looks like Contra Costa County is an easy target, which city is next?”

The county had hired an anthropologist to counter Guidiville’s claimed historic ties to the area, a key factor for federal approval. The draft deal, however, states that Guidiville is a federally recognized tribe “within the geographical boundaries of Contra Costa County.”

Gioia said he did not think the county’s position, in support or opposition, would be the “tipping point” in a federal decision.

“Our hands are tied. We can give input. We don’t know how meaningful that input is,” he said. “And ultimately we don’t control the final decision.”

Of the $12 million a year the county would receive, $7 million must be spent in West County. For the first seven years, $4 million would go to health programs and services, half in West County.

If the tribe cannot secure a compact and instead operates electronic bingo games that don’t require state oversight, the county would receive $6 million a year. It could reopen the deal if nearby traffic or other impacts grow worse than expected.

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