Decision on Mono casino expected next week

Future of North Fork Mono Rancheria in the hands of Gov. Brown

Brian WilkinsonAugust 23, 2012 

It was 10 years ago that the North Fork Mono Rancheria began the complicated planning process for a multi-million dollar casino on Highway 99, north of Madera near Ave. 17. The long awaited and much anticipated final decision on the project, along with the future of the tribe, rests in the hands of Gov. Jerry Brown. Brown is expected to announce his 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down' decision by the end of the month.

The first hurdle in the two-step approval process was cleared by the tribe Sept. 1, 2011, when the Department of Interior/Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the proposed $350 million project, stating the casino would be in the best interest of the tribe, would not be detrimental to the surrounding community, would be built on lands historically connected to the tribe and would enjoy local support. The decision was an important step in the rigorous federal process to take the 300 acres north of Madera into trust for the purpose of tribal gaming.

The second step is Brown's approval and he has three options: Concur with BIA, veto the BIA's decision or defer his decision for six months. Insiders expect the decision to be announced Aug. 31.

If Brown approves, the BIA would be in the position to issue a Record of Decision on the 6,500 page finale Environmental Impact Study released in August, 2010, which would allow putting the land in trust.

With Brown's blessing, the state legislature must still ratify the compact with the tribe. Barring any further legal obstacles from opponents, construction could start as soon as mid-2013 after planning and government details are finalized.

If Brown veto's the BIA decision, the project would come to a screeching halt with no appeal process available to the tribe.

Brown's press office has given no indication which way the decision will go only saying the governor and his staff will weigh the interests of the local communities, tribes and the people of California before announcing the outcome.

Charles Banks-Altekruse, spokesman for the tribe, said the rancheria remains hopeful Brown will concur with the Department of the Interior/BIA decision.

"A favorable decision would allow the tribe to move forward generating jobs, business opportunity and community funding for Madera and the region ... Positive outcomes we believe the governor shares with us," Banks-Altekruse said.

The Madera County Board of Supervisors, the Madera City Council, the Madera County Economic Commission, Madera Taxpayers Association, eight county chambers of commerce and the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau all support the casino. The Chowchilla City Council originally supported the project but changed to a "neutral" position about three years ago.

District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler is optimistic Brown realizes the economic importance of the project to the area and will approve it.

"How can he not when the project will create a large number of jobs while California is at the bottom of the heap with the highest unemployment rate in the nation while Madera has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state," Wheeler said. " I can't imagine him saying no."

Wheeler's comments came just a day after supervisors dealt with a county general fund shortfall of $6.2 million.

"The residents of Madera County have repeatedly voiced their support for the Madera casino and the project is the most positive thing to happen for the county in the past few years," Wheeler said. "Tribal casinos have generated many jobs and have improved the quality of life of tribal citizens."

Wheeler said he has supported Indian casinos since gaming was voted in by the citizens of California in 1998.

Bobby Kahn, executive director of the Madera County Economic Development Commission, knows the job crisis facing Madera County as well as anyone.

"Madera County and the city of Madera desperately need the economic stimulus the casino would provide," Kahn said. "The county has 15% unemployment and Madera has 21% and that, along with other factors, is why the five year average per person income in Chowchilla, Madera and Madera County is low at about $12,280, $17,300 and $18,300, respectively, according to the Census Bureau."

A heavy agricultural economy ($1.5 billion crop value in 2011) that is seasonal with overall low paying jobs is a big contributor to the low per capita incomes found in the county.

Kahn called the casino one of the largest economic projects on the horizon for the Central Valley.

Debi Bray, 23-year president/CEO of the Madera Chamber of Commerce, said the tribe has worked with the community leaders and citizens of Madera for a long time and it's time for the governor to move the project forward.

"The casino will provide much needed jobs and additional business opportunities as well as generate additional tourism for Madera and the Central Valley," Bray said.

Mono tribal leaders point to then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's support of the project in 2008 when he signed a 20-year gaming compact with the tribe. All tribes must have a compact with the state in order to operate a casino with Class III slot machines. At the time, Schwarzenegger said his negotiations resulted in two casinos not being built in environmentally sensitive locations (North Fork and Humboldt Bay) and that only one casino (Mono Rancheria) will be built in a community that supports the project. The compact signed by Schwarzenegger could be modified to meet Brown's priorities and criteria.

The tribe is partnering with Stations Casinos of Las Vegas to make the almost half million square-foot facility (including parking garage) a realty. In addition to the 72,000 square-foot casino featuring 2,000 slot machines and table games, the development will also include a 200-room hotel with pool and spa, three bars, a bingo/meeting hall, several restaurants including a large buffet, gift shops and an entertainment center.

According to the tribe and the environmental documents, the project would support 1,200 jobs during construction and an additional 1,200 spin-off jobs in support of the construction. Once opened, the casino would employ 1,500 people and an additional 850 spin-off jobs, primarily from the variety of vendors who would provide supplies to the facility. The casino would generate about $100 million a year in payroll and services and supplies for the casino/hotel. Stations Casinos, a public traded company, will manage the casino for the first seven years.

Labor leaders from the Building Trades Council have been big supporters of the project pointing to the many construction jobs and more than 1,500 permanent union positions that will be created by the casino.

Tribal leaders say salaries and benefits will be nearly three times the area average.

A second tribe, the Enterprise Rancheria of Maidu Indians, is also awaiting Brown's approval by Aug. 31 to build a casino about 50 miles from their remote land near Oroville.

Tribes with casinos and churches opposed

Heavy lobbying opposition to the two projects, based on unwanted competition, has come from the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians who opened Coarsegold's Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino nine years ago and other tribes with casinos including the the 20-member Jackson Rancheria of Miwok Indians and the 400-member United Auburn Indian Community who owns the Thunder Valley Casino east of Sacramento, one the most profitable casinos in the nation.

A big issue by those opposed to the project is whether the Mono tribe has the right to build a casino near Madera some 40 miles from its reservation in North Fork.

Chukchansi officials and other tribes have said that allowing the project to proceed would open the floodgates to off-reservation gaming. They say they played by the rules and that allowing "reservation shopping" is not fair to all the tribes that have played by the rules.

At the time of BIA's approval, Reggie Lewis, Chukchansi tribal chairman, said is was shameful the BIA staff would make baseless claims with regards to the Mono tribe having "historical connections" to the proposed construction site in order to approve the casino.

Elaine Bethel-Fink, North Fork Rancheria tribal chairperson, has stated that the reservation shopping argument is not accurate because federal law allows tribes with no land, or land inadequate for development, to appeal to put new lands in trust. Putting lands in trust is a rigorous process and the Department of Interior reviews each request on a case by case basis.

Congress set-up this process in 1988, through the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, allowing tribes without a land base the opportunity to engage in gaming. Mono tribal officials say the 65 acres of land that is considered their reservation is not available for development because the land is not owned by the tribe, but by six individual families. The land, adjacent to the Sierra National Forest, is also environmentally sensitive and not suited for development according to the tribe and that position was supported by the Department of Interior.

"Only five of the roughly 325 tribes who operate casinos nationwide have qualified under the same process that we are following," Bethel-Fink said.

"California voters wanted to help Indian tribes ... not limit the options of the poorest, landless tribes," said Banks-Altekruse.

David Rogers, District 2 county supervisor, is opposed to the casino for moral and religious reasons.

The Madera Ministerial Association delivered more than 2,500 signed post cards to the governor's office in March that were collected from a two-month mailing campaign, opposing the "off-reservation" casino. The post cards were distributed by Keep Indian Gaming on Indian Lands, a coalition of gaming tribes opposing "off-reservation" casinos.

The association is made up of 30 Madera churches including Valley West Christian Center, Believers Church and Second Missionary Baptist Church, along with other ministerial-based organization including Doors of Hope, Madera Rescue Mission, Madera County Food Bank and Youth for Christ. Randy Brannon, the 29-year pastor of Grace Community Church and former president of the association, estimates the churches and other organizations represent at least 10,000 people in Madera.

Brannon says the association feels that the tribe moving the casino on property which was never historically theirs is a violation of the public's trust.

"It's an invasion of our community from the outside ... and a downplaying of multiple sociological and moral affects upon our city and region," Brannon said.

Brannon refers to a 1999 report of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission that casinos in general will affect communities with increased crime, problem gambling, financial ruin of individuals and families, increased domestic violence, increased drug and alcohol use, prostitution, increase in the suicide rate and a burden on social services.

"The association is definitely opposed to the governor entering into a compact with the North Fork Mono Rancheria for a casino on Highway 99," Brannon said.

"I think the proof of the pudding with these scare tactic claims is the fact that of the 60-plus tribal casinos in California, I'm not aware of one community that wants to get rid of its local facility," Banks-Altekruse said.

The Madera County Farm Bureau is opposed because the project would overtax already depleted underground water supplies and will dry up wells on adjacent farms and homesites.

Banks-Altekruse said the tribe understands that water issues are critically important to the region.

"That's why we signed an agreement with the Madera Irrigation District that will provide water contributions to the district," Banks-Altekruse said.

State Senator Diane Feinstein questioned area elected officials support for the project in December and was quickly challenged by the county board of supervisors in a Jan. 10 letter signed by Ronn Dominici, board chairman.

"There is significant support for the project ... as can be attested by the numerous support letters as well as the positive testimony taken at the many public hearings over the last seven years," said Dominici, with the letter outlining specific public hearings, a list of city and county officials and eight chambers of commerce in favor of the casino along with testimony before the U.S. Senate Commission on Indian Affairs by Supervisor Frank Bigelow, detailing the cost to the community in delaying the project.

"We believe there is more than ample evidence to support that there is in fact strong support for the casino ... Any further delay of the process would only expend additional taxpayer dollars and incur significant interest expenses to the tribe," said Dominici.

The Picayune Rancheria has spent large amounts of money on mailers and newspaper advertising and have asked service organizations and businesses to write letters in opposition to the project or to stay neutral. Some groups have stated Chukchansi put pressure on them to do so because they receive money from the tribe through a variety of sponsorships and the tribe's Community Grant Program that delves out nearly $1 million a year to non-profits, schools and government agencies in the county due to a negotiated settlement with the county over property taxes.

When the Coarsegold Rodeo Association did not write a letter to the governor opposing the casino, Chukchansi pulled a more than $12,000 sponsorship for this year's rodeo. When the Bass Lake Chamber of Commerce voted to remain neutral on the issue, the tribe put a stop on a $150 chamber membership check. Non-profit organization are not allowed by the IRS to take political stances on issues not directly related to them or they could jeopardize their nonprofit status.

At the time, Chukchansi tribal council chairman Reggie Lewis said that although the tribe respects the rights of organizations to have a different view on the project, the tribe can not be expected to support organizations that support policies that will directly impact the tribe's ability to provide the financial support the organizations are soliciting.

California has 109 federally recognized tribal governments and nearly 60 of those tribes are operating casinos in the state.

If Brown decides in favor of the casino, there is a possibility the decision would be challenged in court, delaying the project further.

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