Senate approves Mono casino

editor@sierrastar.comJuly 2, 2013 

The California State Senate passed AB 277 – the North Fork Rancheria State-Tribal Gaming Compact June 27 — one of the last hurdles leading to the construction of the tribe's $350 million casino on 305 acres west of Highway 99 near Ave. 17, north of Madera.

The Senate vote was 22 to 11 in favor, with six members not voting. The compact, which spells out details of revenue sharing from the casino, was approved by the State Assembly on May 2.

The US Interior Department, Bureau of Indian Affairs, must certify that the 20-year compact follows all federal rules that have to do with tribal gaming. That approval is expected within the next 60 days.

Gary Gilbert, former member of the Madera County Board of Supervisors, was the lead negotiator on behalf of the county when the tribe and county agreed to the Memorandum of Understanding, and has continually supported the efforts of the tribe's efforts to bring the project to fruition.

"This has been a long process, nearly 10 years, and throughout the process, the tribe has always been very transparent and respectful," Gilbert said. "This partnership between the tribe and the county will provide a huge economic boost to Madera County, especially in job creation," Gilbert said. "Many services will be improved including a new fire station, support for education and non-profit organizations to name a few.

Gilbert said the agreement provides the county and the cities of Madera and Chowchilla more than $4 million annually for nine fire protection positions, five law enforcement positions, and housing and workforce development, including $250,000 to be used for economic development to benefit North Fork.

One time contributions include $2.5 million for water conservation efforts, $600,000 for roads, and $200,000 for parks and recreation.

Opponents of the project have argued that the "off-reservation" project could set a dangerous precedent, allowing other off-reservation gaming in other urban areas of the state. The site is about 40 miles from the Mono's Rancheria in North Fork.

Reggie Lewis, the leader of one of three factions of the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, who has opposed the Mono project, said in a prepared statement the casino is going to have devastating effects on Picayune tribal members and severely harm the bond holders that financed the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino.

"Our tribe followed the rules and built our casino on tribal lands in the foothills and chose to obey the will of the California voters who overwhelmingly approved Proposition 1A to allow gaming on tribal lands — not on land that is far removed from the tribe's aboriginal territory. This project is right next to one of the largest highways in California and will completely cut off our main market demographic and source of revenue and traffic for our resort and casino in Coarsegold."

Lewis further stated that there is still a long road ahead with many lawsuits still pending and more to follow which will create uncertainty that the North Fork project will ever open.

Charles Altekruse, director of community relations for the Mono tribe, feels the opponents have twisted the facts.

"They're saying we have land in North Fork where we can build, and the site is not ancestral land — both of those statements are simply not true," Altekruse said.

Altekruse pointed to the decision in 2011 by Larry Echo Hawk, assistant secretary of the interior for Indian affairs, who approved the project and tied the Mono tribe historically to the land.

He said the North Fork Rancheria has always been willing to work with Chukchansi and Table Mountain Casino in an effort to market the three casinos as a gaming and entertainment destination.

"Ironically, the new casino could benefit all the area's casinos," Altekruse said. "The tribes could develop a marketing plan that would increase the size of the total pie for everybody. The opposition has always put more effort in trying to stop us than work with us."

The compact provides up to $24 million through 2020 to the Chukchansi tribe to mitigate the expected loss of revenue due to the new casino. However, the agreement specifically calls for those funds to be terminated if Chukchansi attempts to stop the project.

"We are disappointed that the compact did not contain meaningful mitigation for the Chukchansi people, but we will continue our work to protect the best interests of the Chukchansi tribe and to obtain meaningful mitigation. Our focus now and always is on strengthening our culture and building a lasting, positive legacy in the Central Valley."

Nancy Ayala, leader of another faction of the Chukchansi tribe, said California politicians should be ashamed.

"Allowing the North Fork casino to be built off-reservation, closer to Fresno, not only allows the Mono tribe to break faith with California voters, but it will cause severe economic harm to our tribe and to our biggest asset — the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino," Ayala said in a prepared statement. "It's unfortunate that there have been reports of negotiations and a potential deal with our tribe. Those reports are 100% false. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies have recognized our rightful tribal council as the voice of the Chukchansi tribe and we have had no such negotiations — nor will we."

The following prepared statement about the Senate vote was released by Elaine Bethel-Fink, Mono tribal chairperson.

"We are very pleased that the California State Legislature, after examining our tribe's history and our project's merits, voted to ratify Governor Brown's visionary Tribal-State Gaming Compact with our tribe. This action caps over a decade of rigorous, cooperative, and transparent work on many levels of government.

The North Fork compact delivers many benefits for Native Americans and the State of California continued Bethel-Fink.

"The compact puts our tribe on a solid path toward self-reliance and provides unprecedented funding for poorer non-gaming and small casino tribes across the state. The compact provides a much needed economic boost for one of the poorest regions of the state and nation by generating thousands of good paying jobs and pumping nearly a $100 million dollars per year into the local economy."

Bethel said the compact protects ecologically sensitive areas near the Sierra National Forest, Yosemite National Park, and Humboldt National Seashore.

The agreement will provide $3 to $5 million annually for 20 years to the Wiyot Tribe in Northern California, in exchange for the tribe not building a casino of their own in an environmentally sensitive area.

The compact ensures that funds from the project will go to local infrastructure, public safety, schools, parks, housing, economic development, job training, charities, and other essential services and programs," Bethel-Fink said.

"The compact acknowledges the enormous local support behind this project — from local jurisdictions, labor, business groups, civic groups, and individual citizens ... without whose support this would not have been possible," Bethel-Fink concluded.

The compact also includes an agreement between the state California and the Wiyot Tribe in Northern California. In March, the Wiyot Tribe surrendered the right to build a casino on its environmentally sensitive land in exchange for a percentage of the proceeds from the North Fork tribe's gambling profits.

The project is expected to provide 4,250 permanent, temporary construction and spin-off jobs. Annual payroll and benefits have been estimated between $50 and $60 million a year.

Due to pending litigation from opponents of the project, Mono tribe officials are hesitant to provide a timeline for the start and completion of construction. The tribe earlier said the 2,000 slot machine casino would be built first with a 200-room hotel to be added at a later date.

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