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Controversial Richmond Casino Proposals Move Fitfully Forward

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday April 10, 2007

A major goof has temporarily stalled the approval process for one Richmond-area casino, while signs of movement have been detected for the second. 

The foul-up resulted from the failure to include or consider 60 pages of critical comments by Contra Costa County officials in the environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Sugar Bowl Casino in unincorporated North Richmond. 

The Scotts Valley Band of Pomos had partnered with a Florida developer who specializes in packaging tribal casinos to build a $200 million, 225,000-square-foot, 1,940-slot machine Las Vegas-style gambling palace. 

The proposed location of the North Richmond casino is a 29.87-acre industrial site along Richmond Parkway on a site bounded by Goodrick Avenue on the East and Parr Boulevard to the south. 

The EIS, required under the National Environmental Protection Act, is equivalent to the environmental impact report (EIR) required of complex projects under state law. 

“We don’t know what happened,” said John Rydzik, an environmental officer with the Sacramento regional officer of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). “We’ve checked our logs, and they do show that we received it.” 

As a result, he said, the draft document, which had been circulated to other federal, state and local governmental agencies, has been withdrawn so that Analytical Environmental Services, a private consulting firm often applied by casino-seeking tribes, can redraft the EIS taking the county’s comments into account. 

A representative of the Sacramento-based firm declined to comment, other than refer press calls to the BIA. 

Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, whose district includes the site of Casino San Pablo and both of the proposed Richmond-area casinos, said preliminary results of a multi-jurisdictionally funded traffic analysis spearheaded by the county show that three casinos within a small area would lead to major traffic problems for the region. 

“When you put three Las Vegas-size casinos in a small area, you’re creating a destination that will dramatically change the character of the existing community,” he said. 

While the final draft of the traffic study is several weeks away, Gioia said the study has revealed potentially serious congestion problems if the two new resorts are added to the already-thriving gambling parlor in San Pablo. 

That study, being prepared under the aegis of the West Contra Costa County Transportation Advisory Group, is being funded by the county, several local governments, the East Bay Regional Parks District and Marin County. 

Though the land for the Sugar Bowl falls within an unincorporated section of Contra Costa County, the Richmond City Council has already approved a lucrative contract to provide police, fire and other services if and when the gambling parlor is built. 

While the Sugar Bowl is purely a gambling parlor, the second project would bring a destination resort, complete with luxury hotel, major entertainment venue, and upscale mall and a posh casino to a shoreline site at Point Molate within Richmond city limits. 

A project that unites Berkeley developer James R. Levine with the political expertise of former Defense Secretary Richard Cohen, the Point Molate resort would be a grander affair catering to high-rollers, particularly mainland Chinese. 

“That project has been dormant for a number of months,” said Rydzik, “but I just talked to the consultant, and there appears to be some new life. We are expecting something in the near future.” 

The “something” would be the circulation of the draft EIS, now being prepared by the same Analytical Environmental Services—the same firm which is drafting the Sugar Bowl EIS. 

If all goes as backers and city officials hope, the Point Molate casino would become a reservation of the Guidiville Rancheria band of Pomos. 

Gioia said Levine had told him he had been lining up new financial backers after Harrah’s Entertainment, then the world’s leading transnational gambling company, had pulled out. 

Top Harrah’s officials had testified before the Richmond City Council during sessions leading up to the vote approving the sale to Levine’s Upstream Investments. 

A divided Richmond City Council has backed both projects in hopes both of badly needed revenues for an aging infrastructure and sorely needed jobs to ameliorate the city’s high levels of unemployment, especially among young men of color. 

Gioia said he is troubled by the agreements the tribes have signed with Richmond. 

“People support the casinos because they believe they will create jobs, but while the Sugar Bowl agreement” does specify that a percentage of non-managerial jobs in the first year will come from local hires, “there are no guarantees beyond that point.” 

The supervisor contends the agreements may not be enforceable and are being gathered by the tribes to show support for their applications when they’re being considered by BIA officials. 

Neither tribe has an agreement with the county, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has insisted be endorsed after the state signs off on gambling compacts.  

The Scotts Valley band asked the county to enter into a municipal services agreement, “but we said no, it was putting the cart before the horse. The governor won’t approve compacts without prior federal approval.” 

Richmond hopes to gain millions from the sale of the Point Molate site, which was transferred to local government after the closure of the U.S. Navy refueling station that occupied the site for decades, followed by many millions more once money starts passing over the green felt of the gambling tables. 

Both tribes seeking to build casinos in Richmond have survived one major hurdle—letters of notice sent recently from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to 38 tribes deemed unlikely to win approval of their projects, said Nedra Darling, an agency official in Washington. 

Before a reservation can be created, the BIA must first take the land into trust on behalf of the tribe; those receiving the recent letters were notified that the action wasn’t likely because their claims to have a historic connection with the land were considered doubtful. 

Critics of the two casinos contend the two Pomo tribes traditionally lived well north of the Bay Area, and Gioia agrees. 

“Their natural range was farther north, in Lake County,” he said of the Scotts Valley band. 

While the two tribes have survived the initial round of letters, approval isn’t certain and depends on a BIA determination that the tribes have a legitimate claim that the sites were within the range of their traditional territory—claims that have run into considerable opposition from Ohlone and Miwok representatives. 

The governor’s office has also opposed an historic basis to their claims. 

The tribes are seeking to have the land declared as reservations under federal legislation that restores land to tribes whose reservations were illegally closed by the BIA during the middle of the last century when federal policy aimed at forcing smaller tribes “into the mainstream.” 

Even if the land is approved for reservation status, yet more determinations are required before casinos can be opened on the sites—federal approval and gambling compacts with the state, followed by the service agreements with local governments.