Months Still Remain Before Richmond Casino Decision

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday April 08, 2008

A federal decision on a plan to create a new North Richmond reservation for a landless tribe of Pomos who want to build a casino is months away, a federal official said Monday. 

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) issued their final environmental impact statement on the project March 29, triggering a 30-day period for public and official comment. 

Once the comments are in, officials at the BIA’s Sacramento office will review them and prepare a record of decision that will, eventually, determine the fate of the Sugar Bowl Casino. 

Once the decision is forwarded to Washington, “it usually takes two or three months, especially for a decision like this, which is pretty controversial,” said Patrick O’Mallan, an environmental protection specialist for the BIA in Sacramento. 

But the record of decision is only one aspect of the approval process, said John Rydzik, chief of the BIA’s regional Division of Environmental, Cultural Resources Management and Safety. 

And while the full-scale casino project is listed as the preferred alternative, that doesn’t mean that will be the option selected, he added. 

Approval of the proposal would make the 181-member Scotts Valley band of Pomos the state’s only operators of a full-scale, Las Vegas-style urban casino. 

The Scotts Valley Pomos are a landless, poverty-stricken tribe, with a third of the band’s adults unemployed and 57 percent of tribe members receiving government assistance, according to the BIA. 

If the government approves the plan, the tribe would become owners of a 225,000-square-foot casino, along with its 3,549 parking spaces—2,044 of them in a five-level garage. The environmental impact statement estimates that 14,000 patrons would flock to the Sugar Bowl on a typical day. 

The casino complex would operate around the clock, and the complex would feature a 99,320-square-foot gambling venue with 1,940 slot machines, 55 table games and 13 Asian card games on the main casino floor, plus a poker room with 16 tables and a “high-roller” room with 60 slots, five table games and three Asian card games. 

Other features of the project include: 

• A 600-seat buffet, 

• A 120-seat full-service restaurant,  

• A 150-seat sports bar, 

• A 24,000-square foot events center capable of seating 1,500, and  

• Retail shops and an espresso bar. 

As proposed, the casino would hire 1,930 full-time and 342 part-time employees for an operation that would operate on a round-the-clock basis. 

While the project has drawn strong opposition from the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors and Assemblymember Loni Hancock, the City of Richmond has already signed an agreement with the tribe to provide their casino with police, fire and emergency medical services. 


Four proposals 

The Sugar Bowl was one of four proposals for full-scale East Bay casinos, with one in Oakland, another at Point Molate in Richmond and a proposal to turn the San Pablo Casino cardroom into a full-scale casino. 

The first proposal was to site a tribal casino and hotel complex on environmentally sensitive land near the Oakland airport, but it was withdrawn. 

The Point Molate project of the Guidiville Rancheria Pomos has stalled with the withdrawal of its major corporate partner, though an environmental impact statement is now in preparation based on plans for a hotel, massive casino and upscale shopping center. 

Rydzik said the draft enviornmental impact statement on the Point Molate project is now being finalized and could be ready for public review and a hearing in the next few months. 

Members of the Lytton Rancheria band of Pomos settled for slot-machine-like high speed bingo games in San Pablo after threats of federal action challenged the legality of a provision in federal legislation passed for the tribe which had backdated their title to the land. 

The speed of the electronic bingo games eventually installed in San Pablo proved enough like slots to significantly raise the Lytton’s gaming revenues, and they allowed their proposal for a Vegas-like casino to lapse. 

The high-speed machines have greatly expanded the casino’s revenues, with the city’s share under a negotiated agreement with the tribe accounting for 28 percent of San Pablo’s revenues for fiscal year 2007, an increase of nearly $2.7 million from the year before, according to the city’s annual financial statement. 

The casino also became the city’s third largest employer, beaten out by Contra Costa College by a one-worker margin. 

The promise of jobs won the tribe endorsements of many members of Richmond’s black clergy, who viewed the hope of employment as a counter to the poverty and violence that have wracked the city. 

Both the Scotts Valley Pomos and the Guidiville tribe who applied for the Point Molate casino were eligible to apply for off-reservation casinos because they had once had tax-exempt rancherias of their own which, the government later determined, had been illegally stripped of legal recognition by the federal California Rancheria Termination Act of 1958 and further legislation enacted six years later. 

The Scotts Valley band’s legal recognition was restored in 1991, but “without a land base,” according to the EIS. 

In their responses to the draft EIS circulated two years ago, critics of the casino project charged that establishing a new reservation in the East Bay would be inappropriate, given that the Miwok and Ohlone tribes typically ranged in the area. 


Alternatives, approvals 

The EIS examines four alternatives of the site, plus a no-development option, with the full-scale casino being the preferred choice. 

The others are: 

• A “reduced casino” complex and events center totaling 95,000 square feet with 1,140 full-time and 201 part-time employees serving 5,900 patrons a day. 

• A “reduced casino” of the same size as the second alternative, but without an events center, using that space for more gambling which would attract an estimated 11,300 daily patrons served by 1,187 full-time and 260 part-time workers. The site would also house a 68,150-square-foot retail and office complex would bring the total  

• Finally, the tribe could build a two-level, 248,000-square-foot regional office and retail center, with 332 full-time and 232-part-time employees. 

At least seven separate approvals would be needed before a casino could be approved, including the Secretary of the Interior’s okay for transfer of the 30-acre site into federal trust status on behalf of the tribal government. 

The Washington-based National Indian Gaming Commission would have to approve a set of gambling ordinances for the tribe, as well as its management contract with Richmond Gaming Ltd., the casino operator. 

The federal Environmental Protection Agency would have to issue a stormwater discharge permit and water quality certification, while the tribe would have to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about potential endangered species issues. 

Another consultation would be required with the state Office of Historic Preservation, though there are no likely landmarks involved, and a Contra Costa County encroachment permit would be needed to build a roadway, utility and drainage improvements along Richmond Parkway and Parr Boulevard. 

The EIS is available online at http://scottsvalleyeis.com./