Governor Jerry Brown approved the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians' plans last Friday to build a multi-million dollar casino on Highway 99, north of Madera near Ave. 17.
Brown's Aug. 31 decision follows the Sept. 1, 2011 approval of the $350 million casino by the Department of Interior/Bureau of Indian Affairs to allow the tribe to proceed with the casino, about 40 miles from North Fork.
Brown concurred with the department's approval that stated 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.
In a letter to Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar, Brown said the federal administrative process was extremely thorough, lasting more than seven years, including numerous hearings and generated thousands of pages of administrative records.
Tribal Council Chairperson Elaine Bethel Fink said the governor's approval was a necessary step in the process and the 1,900 member tribe is looking forward to completing the process and making their dreams come true.
The project now awaits final approval by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the state legislature.
"The casino is going to bring a big economical boost to the Central Valley," Bethel Fink said.
Tribal spokesman Charles Banks-Altekruse said the project has been in the planning process for nearly a decade.
"The project has been poured over, scrutinized, subjected to numerous rule revisions by numerous state and federal administrations ... Democratic and Republican ... and still it has prevailed and moved forward," Banks-Altekruse said. "Although we have passed the largest hurdles in the rigorous approval process, several state and federal steps remain. And, so while a few narrow special interest groups may still try to oppose and obstruct us, we feel momentum and justice are on our side. Our tribe remains focused on one goal: working with our local partners and supporters to push this thing across the line and begin construction as soon as possible to generate jobs, economic opportunity and community funding for Madera County."
Along with Brown's approval came a new 110-page, 20-year compact between the state and the tribe, providing millions of dollars in shared gaming revenue with the state, Madera County and the cities of Madera and Chowchilla, other agencies and tribes. The new compact nullifies the compact signed in 2008 by then Gov. Schwarzenegger although the provisions of the compact are almost identical.
Even the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, who operate Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold and were the project's biggest opponents, will benefit from the new compact. In an effort to mitigate the expected loss of revenue to Chukchansi because of the new casino, the Mono tribe will pay Chukchansi up to $760,000 per quarter, from the time they receive their construction financing until the casino opens. When the casino opens, Chukchansi will receive 2.5% on the net win from slot machines through 2020. The compact calls for the revenue sharing to top out at 3.5% if annual slot revenue exceeds more than $200 million.
Still, Chukchansi officials said they will be exploring litigation options and urging the California legislature to be wary of approving any tribal-state gaming compact with the Mono tribe.
If the compact is approved, the Mono tribe will also give 2.5% of slot winnings after opening for life to the Wiyot Tribe in Northern California to keep that tribe from building a casino on environmentally sensitive areas of Humboldt Bay.
Maryann McGovran, who has been on the Mono tribal council for eight years -- the past four as tribal council vice chairperson -- said the tribe is happy with the compact because it gives a lot of money to the local community and other tribes throughout California.
Pat Beihn, who has been on the Mono tribal council for 15 years, said he was very proud of Gov. Brown for his courage in making the right decision.
Regardless of the mitigation measures, Chukchansi officials were quick to criticize Brown's decision. In a statement released within hours of the governor's announcement, Reggie Lewis, Chukchansi tribal chairman, said "Today, Governor Brown chose Las Vegas developers over the California voters. We continue to strongly oppose the policy of 'reservation shopping' that has been pushed by non-Indian Las Vegas developers who encourage tribes to claim territorial rights far away from their current lands to achieve a better gaming market."
Bethel Fink has previously stated that the reservation shopping argument was not accurate because federal law allows tribes with no land, or land inadequate for development, to appeal to put new lands in trust, a rigorous process that the Department of Interior reviews on a case by case basis.
Lewis said in the statement that Brown failed to follow the California Environmental Quality Act that requires state agencies to identify environmental impacts of the project and to mitigate those impacts, and that he also failed to conduct an independent analysis of whether the North Fork tribe has a historical connection to the proposed casino site.
With Brown's approval, the BIA is now in a position to issue a Record of Decision on the 6,500 page final Environmental Impact Study released in August, 2010, which would allow the land to be placed in trust.
"There have been plenty of opportunities over the years for people to weigh-in on the environmental study and we have mitigated every issue that was brought up," McGovran said.
Lewis also said the governor's approval "has essentially opened the floodgates for off-reservation gaming in California ... communities throughout the state should be prepared to see casinos pop-up right in the middle of their neighborhoods and downtown."
Pastor Randy Brannon, past president of the Madera Ministerial Association, made up of 30 churches and ministerial-based organizations, said prior to Brown's decision, the association felt it was a violation of the public's trust to move the casino on property which was never historically theirs.
"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.
But government officials in the county were equally quick to counter the objections by pointing out the benefits of the development.
District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler called the governor's decision one of the most positive things to ever happen in Madera County.
"The casino is going to provide construction and permanent jobs, benefit many county services, help existing businesses, schools and non-profit organizations, not just today and tomorrow, but forever," Wheeler said.
Wheeler envisions a time when the Central Valley becomes the hub for people in California who love to gamble.
"With this casino and the surrounding casinos cooperating with each other and working together, our area could become the hub in California for people who love to gamble," Wheeler said. "I would expect many visitors to the casino to take advantage of other attractions in the area such as Yosemite, Bass Lake, the wine trail, the Mono Museum in North Fork, Fresno Flats Historic Village & Park, and the Sierra Scenic Byway, spending additional tourism dollars."
Wheeler said he couldn't be happier for all the great things the casino is going to do for the county, the cities of Madera and Chowchilla and the state of California.
Ronn Dominici, District 3 supervisor and board chairman, said there was significant support for the project with numerous letters in favor of the casino and positive testimony at many public hearings over the last seven years.
"We are thankful for Governor Brown's support," Dominici said. "For nearly a decade we have been working with federal and state authorities to get this project moving. The governor heard our calls and responded to the residents of Madera County. We appreciate his thoughtfulness and consideration."
Dominici said the project will bring thousands of jobs, increase tourism and provide the economic stimulus the county desperately needs.
"Madera County needs this project and its time we get it done," Dominici said.
The Madera County Board of Supervisors, the Madera City Council, the Madera County Economic Commission, Madera Taxpayers Association and eight county chambers of commerce supported the casino. The Chowchilla City Council originally supported the project but changed to a "neutral" position about three years ago.
Bobby Kahn, executive director of the Madera County Economic Development Commission, said the project will help lower the unemployment rate in the county and bring economic stimulus to the area.
"The county has 15% unemployment and the city of Madera has 21% and this project will help bring those numbers down," Kahn said.
He called the casino one of the largest economic projects not only for the county, but for the entire Central Valley.
"We are excited that the project is moving forward," Kahn said. "I'm happy the governor realized this is a worthwhile project that will help the entire region."
The tribe is partnering with Stations Casinos of Las Vegas to build the facility. 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 and several restaurants.
The original plan was to build the entire project at one time, but due to the current economy, the tribe has decided to build the project in phases over the next seven years starting with the casino, followed by the hotel and other project features.
According to the tribe, the project will support 1,200 jobs during construction and 1,500 employees when opened.
It is estimated the casino will generate about $100 million a year in payroll and a variety of services and supplies. Stations Casinos will manage the casino for the first seven years. At that time the tribe will have the option of negotiating a new contract with Stations or take over operation of the casino.
A second tribe, the Enterprise Rancheria of Maidu Indians, also received the governor's approval last Friday to build a casino about 50 miles from their remote land near Oroville.
California has 109 federally recognized tribal governments, one fifth of the tribal governments in the United States, and nearly 60 of those tribes are operating casinos in the state.