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San Pablo Casino Pits City v. City, Gambler v. Gambler By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Friday February 25, 2005

The battle over a tribe’s plan to build a Las Vegas-size casino in San Pablo heated up this week in City Council chambers and competing press conferences. 

On Tuesday night, the San Pablo City Council voted unanimously to urge state legislators to pass the required enabling act while a few miles away, Albany councilmembers voted their opposition with equal unanimity. 

At 10 the following morning the battle rejoined, this time in the form of rival press conferences. 

Casino San Pablo—the existing card room where the 2,500-slot-machine tribal casino would rise—offered a press conference where California labor leaders touted the jobs that would be created. 

Meanwhile, the Albany City Council Chambers played host to a media conference where a mixed group of opponents, including an academic, two elected officials, a Richmond political activist and a San Pablo business consultant unveiled a study that claims the casino would drain a minimum of $173 million annually from the East Bay and result in a net job loss. 

During the leadup to the San Pablo vote, city officials hailed the casino as a financial savior redeeming the city from the threat of dissolution and a boon for the local business community. 

Most of the public who spoke prior to the council vote raised the specters of crime, moral bankruptcy and the victimization of those least able to afford it. 

The resolution the council adopted urged the Legislature to endorse the compact already signed by the Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Lytton Rancheria Band which would authorize construction of the casino on San Pablo Avenue west of Interstate 80 “so that the residents of West Contra Costa County can receive the much needed jobs that would result in a Type III casino. . .” 

A Type III casino is one that features slot machines and card tables, but no dice or roulette. 

The Albany City Council resolution cited traffic and parking problems, increases in crime, personal bankruptcies, economic blight, proliferating pawn shops, “homelessness, domestic violence, child abuse and fraud,” as well as potential negative impacts to Doctors Hospital, the only regional medical facility offering public emergency room. 

Two San Pablo councilmembers reserved the harshest criticism for Loni Hancock, the Democratic State Assemblymember who represent the city and other East Bay communities. 

“Loni Hancock is spreading misinformation and myths because she has her own agenda,” declared Councilmember Paul V. Morris, while Councilmember Leonard McNeil cited “opposition from a very slanted forum that Loni Hancock put together.” 

McNeil’s comment referred to a Jan. 22 gathering called by the legislator that brought an overflow crowd to the Knox Center for the Performing Arts at Contra Costa Community College. 

Though Lytton Tribal Chair Margie Mejia, San Pablo Mayor Joseph M. Gomes and City Manager Brocker Arner were among the panelists, the speakers were heavily weighted toward casino foes. 

One of those foes was the central figure at the Wednesday morning press conference in Albany City Hall. Dr. William N. Thompson, a leading gambling expert witness and a professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, unveiled a 28-page analysis of the likely impacts of the casino for San Pablo and the Bay Area. 

Because, unlike the gambling parlors of the Las Vegas Strip and Glitter Gulch, Casino San Pablo won’t bring customers in from out of state, Thompson estimated that 55 percent of the dollars wagered there would come from pockets in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, with another 35 percent from the East and South Bays and only 10 percent from beyond the Bay Area. 

With 4.98 million visits yearly from gamblers losing an average of $100.20 each, the casino would take in $499 million, he estimated. 

Thompson estimated the operation’s annual costs, including payments to state and local governments, out-of-area operators, and Nevada slot machine makers, at $329.5 million—with only 47 percent going to the East Bay economy. 

Included in the losses was a figure of $54.9 million annually in losses caused by problem and compulsive gamblers, who lose jobs, run up unpayable debts and consume social services as a result of their problems. 

One of the primary sources of economic losses is the fact that money lost at the table and distributed outside the region won’t be spent with local businesses, Thompson said, resulting in further job losses as well. 

At the same time Thompson was addressing journalists, California Labor Federation Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski was praising the Lyttons for their “commitment to be a good partner in bringing good jobs to a community that has been too often left behind.” 

Joining Pulaski was Jack Gribbon, state political director for UNITE! HERE, affiliated with the Las Vegas Culinary Workers Union, which represents workers at the card room. 

“These are the kind of jobs that lift workers from barely making ends meet to a living wage and takes the dependent health care obligations off the backs of the state taxpayers and put them where they belong,” Gribbon said in a prepared statement. 

Dale Peterson, recording secretary for the Contra Costa Building Trades unions, praised the casino as a source of 6,800 jobs while the 342,000-square-foot structure is built. 

Meanwhile in Albany, Thompson was joined by Alameda County Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker, a staunch urban gambling foes. A clinical social worker, Lai-Bitker singled out her experience in treating victims of compulsive gambling as a major reason for her opposition. 

Andres Soto, a co-founder of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, faulted the casino for preying on the Laotian and Latino residents of Richmond and San Pablo. 

“I have a couple of friends on the San Pablo City Council, Leonard McNeil and [Vice Mayor] Genoveva Garcia Calloway, and we call on them to reassess their position,” Soto said. 

“Solving our problems on the backs of those who can least afford it is no solution,” said Albany City Councilmember Robert Leiber. “I understand that many local cities are under tremendous pressure, but none of the [economic benefits to San Pablo] can offset the damage to our neighbors.” 

Both sides of the fight have been heavily funded by gambling interests and have recruited high-priced consultants and media advisors to marshal evidence and argue their cases. 

Some of the supporters of the San Pablo proposal belong to the Maloof family of Sacramento and Las Vegas, owners of the Sacramento Kings NBA team and of the Palms Casino in Las Vegas. The Maloofs reportedly raised $2 million for Schwarzenegger’s successful gubernatorial run, and it was Schwarzenegger who signed a pact with the Lytton Tribe to build the San Pablo casino. 

The Maloofs are partners with three other entities that have signed on to manage the reincarnated Casino San Pablo, two casino operating tribes—the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians which owns and operates the Cache Creek Casino in Yolo County and the Pala Band of Mission Indians—and former Las Vegas casino owner Jerry Turk, who manages the Pala’s casino in San Diego County. 

In exchange for running Casino San Pablo, the four managing partners will receive a quarter of the net profit. 

Those opposed to the casino include the owners and operators of Bay Area cardrooms, which, along with the state lottery and charity bingo games, offered the only forms of gambling allowed in California on non-tribal lands. 

The next moves are in the hands of the legislature and of the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee, where Chair John McCain is holding hearings on the legality of legislation that gave the Lyttons a retroactive title to the land after the cutoff date that allowed automatic entitlement to a casino.