Grand Promises, Fast-Track Approval May Speed Point Molate Casino Resort

By Richard Brenneman
Monday June 09, 2008 - 10:03:00 AM

Reports of its death having been greatly exaggerated, Richmond’s Point Molate casino is not only alive—it’s being fast-tracked by state and federal agencies. 

And the tribal venture is being bankrolled, says developer James D. Levine, with the cash of another tribe, already rich from their own gambling venture.  

While the speed-up specifically involves completing the handover of the former U.S. Navy fueling station—with the help of the Navy and the state Regional Water Quality Control Board—the Bureau of Indian Affairs is also pushing forward on a key document needed to transform the site into a tribal reservation. 

And Levine, the environmental consulting expert turned would-be gambling magnate, says the billion-dollar casino, resort and condo complex constitutes the greenest project ever erected in California. 

The waterfront development had stalled after Levine’s initial financial backer, the Nevada-based Harrah’s Entertainment, pulled out more than a year ago, but the Berkeley developer said he’s ready with plans for a five-star resort on the Richmond shoreline near the foot of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge 

Levine announced the latest news at Wednesday night’s meeting of the Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), a joint Navy/citizen committee which has conducted nearly 100 meetings since it was first formed 12 years ago, said public representative and co-chair Don Gosney. 

While the largest portions of the base—218 acres—were transferred to the City of Richmond in September 2003, four parcels remain under Navy jurisdiction because hazardous waste cleanups weren’t completed. 

Normally, under terms of the federal base closure law, the Navy would have retained ownership till the site was rendered legally safe, but in rare instances, a Finding for Suitability for Early Transfer [a FOSET] allows for early handover. Under terms of the FOSET, cleanup would continue under the supervision of the state water board, which Levine and his partners providing insurance that would guarantee satisfactory completion, the developer said. 

The draft FOSET will be made public Tuesday, when a 30-day public comment period will begin. Also starting in June, the water board will begin preparing its own cleanup order that will accompany the handover. 

If all goes well, the Navy could transfer the remaining land to the city in December, which would then complete the transfer by passing it on to the developer and the ultimate owner, the Guidiville Rancheria Pomos. 

Sometime in December, the whole package—including the FOSET, a water board cleanup order, land use restrictions and a quitclaim deed—will go to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose signature is required before the transfer can occur, said Navy Remedial Project Manager Derek Robinson. 

“We are going to try to get the governor to sign as soon as possible,” Robinson said, adding that Schwarzenegger’s office “has been handling it quicker than they’re used to.” 

When RAB member Arnie Kasindorf asked what would happen if the governor refused to sign, Levine said that objections could be raised with the chief executive’s staff and with the staff of the California Environment Protection Agency (EPA) to resolve potential problems before it the documents hit the Schwarzenegger’s desk. 

Any likely objections, he said, “are all fixable.” 

“You guys are going to get it all ship-shape,” Robinson added. 


New partner 

Levine refused to offer any clues about his new tribal partner, which is veiled behind the corporate shield of Winehaven Partners, a limited liability corporation created Delaware last Dec. 20 and registered to do business in California on April 21 from an address that traces back to Levine’s Emeryville office. 

Levine declined to identify the tribe or even to specify whether it was located in Southern California. The tribe must have deep pockets, because the project’s price tag has doubled since 2005, when Levine cited a $500 million figure. 

“We’re hoping Elton John will open” when the doors of the complex’s entertainment venue is ready for business, Levine told the RAB.  

Construction of the complex will be a gargantuan effort, including the removal of more than 1.5 million cubic yards of hillside to make way for a 5,000-space parking garage. 

Plans call for 1,100 hotel rooms (each with a bay view), a 150,000-square-foot convention center, a business conference center, 300,000 square feet of top-flight retail outlets, outdoor cafes and a host of other entertaining and educational attractions, as well as a condo community crowned with photovoltaic panels and solar water heating. 

“We want to provide the place where people celebrate everything important,” he said. 

Projections call for 15,000 visitors a day to the Las Vegas-style casino [everything but craps and wheels of fortune], and a bounty of cash creating “an economic engine that can fuel community projects on a sale never dreamed of before,” Levine said. 

The nationally designated historic building that was once the nation’s largest winery will be restored in all its crenelated glory as the home of the casino and upscale dining, connected to the entertainment and hotel complex by a clear glass walkway to insure the building is clearly visible to one and all. 

The project will also include buildings for the Guidivilles, including housing for all tribe members and a roundhouse located on the hilltop above the point. 


Greenest yet 

Levine promises the greenest casino ever to environmentalists, and the greenest-ever bounty to the community in the flow of a never-ending river of cash. 

“We have started real planning with public agencies to create the most integrated multi-modal transit hub” in the region, said Levine. 

In addition to its proximity to the bridge, the complex will have shuttle links to the Richmond BART station, a terminal for ferries powered by alternative fuels, tidal turbine energy generation, along with fuel cells and photovoltaics, a rock-based heat storage system and green building materials in all the tribal structures, he said. 

“It’s an extraordinary project that will do extraordinary things for the city,” with the benefits “far outweighing” the social troubles that come with problem gambling, Levine said.  

The meeting was no place for nay-sayers, and Levine’s promise that his resort “will throw off $20 million and maybe more to the community” was met with smiles. 


EIR, EIS, reservation 

On a parallel track, the key document needed before the land can be turned into a Native American reservation is also moving into play, the long-delayed environmental review mandated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). 

Point Molate is seeking both a state-level environment impact review (EIR) and a federal environment impact statement (EIS), though only the latter is required by the BIA. 

The draft documents will be released next month, followed by a public comment period, then preparation of the final documents. 

The final word on reservation status rests with the BIA. 

The Guidivilles had been stripped of legal recognition five decades ago, and creation of a new reservation allows the tribe to seek what could become the state’s first metropolitan casino. 

Any gambling agreement must be approved by the BIA, the National Indian Gaming Commission and the governor. 

Just what sort of political opposition the project will encounter remains a question. 

Both Democratic candidates for state senate seat that represents Richmond have taken contributions from backers of casinos. 

State Assemblymember Loni Hancock, who won the Democratic primary for state senator last week, had been a strong opponent of some urban casinos, but she accepted a $3,000 campaign contribution on Dec. 18 from Levine’s Upstream Point Molate LLC, the company developing the project. 

Hancock was targeted by mailers funded by a coalition of gambling tribes. Her opponent, former Assemblymember Wilma Chan, has taken money from the tribe that operates Casino San Pablo. 

While the Richmond City Council has enthusiastically embraced the project. Contra Costa County officialdom has been hostile.