After nearly a decade of rigorous planning, the final major hurdle for the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians has been cleared that will allow the tribe to build its $350 million off-reservation casino on Highway 99, north of Madera.
The assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs made a final agency determination to acquire about 305 acres of land in trust for gaming purposes for the tribe on Nov. 26.
Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn's decision represents the final federal approval step in the lengthy process established by Congress to qualify newly acquired trust lands for tribal gaming.
"We are delighted with this decision," said Elaine Bethel-Fink, Mono tribal chairperson. "It brings our tribe one step closer to realizing our generations-long dream of helping our people and our community by creating jobs, business opportunities and community investment."
Bethel-Fink said the tribe pursued the process to restore and rebuild the tribe and its land base in a transparent and collaborative manner.
"Throughout the process we adhered strictly to the letter and spirit of the law," Bethel-Fink said. "With the land decision now settled, we will continue to work closely with our local, state, and federal representatives to ensure the best possible project for the tribe, region and the state of California."
The decision comes three months after Governor Jerry Brown concurred with the September 2011 determination by the secretary of the Department of the Interior that gaming on the newly acquired trust lands would be in the best interest of the tribe and would not be detrimental to the surrounding community.
In a prepared statement, Nancy Ayala, Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians tribal chairwoman, said her tribe continues to express strong opposition to any further federal action that encourages reservation shopping.
"As we have stated before, we have no objections to tribes building on their existing lands," Ayala said. "But let's be clear -- the decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to put non-Indian land into trust for the North Fork Rancheria, which already has existing tribal lands 38 miles away, is being done primarily because it would be more commercially profitable."
Ayala said allowing this reservation shopping process to move forward will open the floodgates for other tribes to follow suit.
"Off-reservation casinos are not in line with what California voters approved when they passed Propositions 1A and 5," Ayala said. "Voters agreed, and believed, that casinos would be built on tribal lands, not dozens of miles away in any random community just because it would be more lucrative."
State legislature must approve compact
The next step is for the state legislature, that reconvenes in January, to ratify the compact the governor agreed to with the tribe three months ago.
Bethel-Fink said tribal officials will be making trips to Sacramento to communicate with legislators, many of them new since the November election, to update them on the project and seek their approval to ratify the compact.
The 20-year compact between the state and the tribe provides millions of dollars in shared gaming revenue with the state, Madera County and the cities of Madera and Chowchilla, other agencies and tribes, including the Picayune Rancheria, who operate Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold.
The Chukchansi tribe, one of the project's biggest opponents, will benefit from the new North Fork 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.
"North Fork's contribution to Chukchansi could be as high as $5 million a year," said Charlie Banks-Altekruse, community relations director for the Mono tribe.
The agreement with the state also calls for the Mono tribe to give 2.5% of slot winnings after opening for life to the Wiyot Tribe in Northern California in exchange for the Wiyot Tribe not to build a casino on environmentally sensitive areas of Humboldt Bay. The compact also provides sizable contributions to other non-gaming tribes throughout the state.
"Everyone is eager to break ground and to bring much needed jobs and business to Madera County," Bethel-Fink said. "There is a common interest of jobs and shared revenue with the county, the state and non-gaming tribes. After all, this was the original purpose and promise when voters approved tribal government gaming."
Banks-Altekruse said if there are no further delays or attempts to slow down the process, the best case scenario could have the tribe breaking ground for the casino in early to mid 2013.
"This project represents $100 million annually in economic benefit to the region," said Banks-Altekruse. "Only those motivated by narrow self interests would want to stall these benefits."
The North Fork tribe has negotiated binding agreements with the county and City of Madera as well as the local water district, promising to mitigate potential impacts and provide more than $5 million annually in community funding for schools, roads, parks, public safety, economic development, and local charities, among other public programs and services. The tribe has also signed labor agreements and agreed to provide substantial funding to non-gaming tribes throughout the state.
"This tribe worked tirelessly from the beginning to bring all parties to the table -- I know because I was part of the original tribal negotiation committee back in 2004," said Ronn Dominici, chairman of the Madera County Board of Supervisors. "It's no surprise at all that both the governor and Department of the Interior have now approved the project and land. Now it's time for everyone to come together to bring jobs and economic growth to Madera County."
Bobby Kahn, executive director of the Madera County Economic Development Commission, called the latest approval a major step toward having the casino become reality.
"This project will create thousands of jobs in the Madera area and will be a huge boost to the local economy," Kahn said.
"This has always been more than a tribal project -- this has been a community project from the start," said Bethel-Fink. "Our tribe is so grateful for the outpouring of support and personal endorsements from local business chambers, labor unions, civic groups, tribes and nearly 6,000 private citizens."
The tribe announced in 2004 it was partnering with Station Casinos of Las Vegas to build the facility.
From the beginning, according to Bethel-Fink, the tribe has felt the project will serve as an economic catalyst for the region that has an unemployment rate consistently higher than the state average and an agriculture-based economy in need of diversification.
In the prepared statement, Ayala said the Chukchansi tribe will continue to oppose this process, not only because of the impact on the Central Valley and the environment, but because it undermines the will of the voters and the principle of fundamental fairness.
"Allowing off-reservation gaming is unjust and unfair to tribes in California, like ours, who played by the rules, invested in our communities and are already operating casinos on ancestral lands," Ayala said.
Details: ofr.gov/inspection.aspx, search under "North Fork Rancheria."