The Desert Dispatch

By SAM PEARSON, staff writer

Hundreds of miles from Barstow, an American Indian tribe plans to break ground on a $433 million hotel-casino project that will bring a local community an estimated 900 construction jobs and 2,250 permanent jobs.

The Sonoma County city of Rohnert Park’s new casino from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria will be the largest in the San Francisco Bay Area, drawing gamblers from throughout the region to the suburb of 40,000 that’s a gateway to Wine Country and home to Sonoma State University. Like a proposed Indian gaming casino in Barstow, the Graton tribe’s new project is far from the tribe’s existing reservation and adjacent to a major freeway, Highway 101.

Barstow officials, working to help the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla Indians build a casino in the Lenwood Road area of Barstow, have been monitoring the Rohnert Park tribe’s new deal. City Manager Curt Mitchell, in an email to council members, praised the project as a positive development for Barstow.

“The approval was rushed through the Legislature, and the compact includes significantly more revenue sharing from the tribe than other gaming compacts,” Mitchell wrote to council members in a June 2 email.

Barstow officials have worked for years to bring the Los Coyotes to town in the hopes of spurring economic development and bringing needed jobs to a community struggling with 15.7 percent unemployment. The Los Coyotes have said the project would create more than 1,000 construction jobs and 820 permanent jobs in Barstow. The City Council approved a letter of support for the project last month.

But the experience in Rohnert Park was not always so simple.

In Rohnert Park, city officials often found that their hands were tied when it came to the casino, with little power either to advance or kill the project, city manager Gabriel Gonzalez said. Instead, he focused on mitigating adverse impacts to the city and securing revenue from the tribe.

The city negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the Graton Rancheria tribe in 2003 to receive about $9 million per year from the tribe over 20 years. That’s important, Gonzalez said, because the tribe is not required to pay any sales or property tax, so without the contract the city would receive nothing.

State officials added the funding condition to the tribe’s compact with Gov. Jerry Brown, further obligating the tribe to make the payments. Of the funds, $5 million goes to the city’s general fund and $4 million is held in a special account to mitigate the impacts of the casino by providing funding to schools and community organizations, Gonzalez said. The tribe will begin making the payments when the casino opens.

The tribe’s agreement passed through layers of state government that the Los Coyotes will eventually also have to navigate. The governor’s office negotiates the compact directly with the tribe, with no role for the city, Gonzalez said. Then the agreement is ratified by both houses of the legislature and sent to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has 45 days to approve it, reject it or take no action, which would allow the compact to take effect.

Barstow officials hope to speed this process along. The city allocated funds to hire a lobbying firm in Sacramento to push the Los Coyotes’ casino project.

“A lobbyist who works well with Governor Brown, and is effective on both sides of the aisle, will be a valuable asset as our project moves toward approval,” Mitchell wrote in an email to city council members.

But Rohnert Park found that method ineffective, Gonzalez said.

The city has lobbyists to influence state lawmakers in Sacramento, but did not deploy them for the tribe’s casino because the city was not a party to the negotiations, Gonzalez said.

“We would have had no influence whatsoever,” Gonzalez said. “They wouldn’t even tell us if they were in discussions or not.”

And in Rohnert Park, community opposition was heated.

Rohnert Park is larger and richer than Barstow, with the average home worth two and a half times that of property in Barstow, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The city’s unemployment rate is nearly half Barstow’s, at 8.5 percent, according to the state Economic Development Department. Still, 2,200 residents in Rohnert Park are estimated to be out of work. Despite promises of economic development, a poll found nearly 68 percent of residents were against the casino project — widespread opposition that has not materialized in Barstow.

Chip Worthington, a pastor who leads a community group called Stop the Casino 101 that fought the Rohnert Park project, said that even casinos in commercial areas like the Lenwood Road area of Barstow brought problems like homeless people, abandoned vehicles and crime. Some religious leaders in Barstow, too, have expressed opposition to the casino at community meetings.

Worthington said he didn’t trust the state to take action against tribes that did not honor their revenue sharing agreements with cities.

“The government officials are like prostitutes,” Worthington said. “They’ll do anything for money or the promise of money.”

Rohnert Park, Sonoma County
2010 Population: 40,971 (down 3 percent from 2000)
Unemployment rate: 8.5 percent (2,200 unemployed)
Median household income: $57,387
Per capita income: $28,263
City’s annual budget: $55 million
Projected annual revenue from casino: $9 million
Projected jobs created: 900 construction jobs, 2,250 permanent jobs

Barstow, San Bernardino County
2010 Population: 22,639
Unemployment rate: 15.7 percent (1,700 unemployed)
Median household income: $45,166
Per capita income: $19,643
City’s annual budget: $17.75 million
Projected jobs created: 1,000 construction jobs, 820 permanent jobs

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, state Employment Development Department, city budget documents

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