Questions Remain on Fate of East Bay Casino Plans

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday January 15, 2009 - 07:36:00 PM

The East Bay heads into the new year with two Las Vegas-style casinos on the drawing boards and economic uncertainty ahead. 

Two tribes hope to build what would become California’s first urban casinos, and they follow the two basic prototypes created decades ago. 

Jim Levine and the Guidiville Rancheria Band of Pomos hope to build what a vanishing breed of Las Vegas gamblers once dubbed a “carpet joint.” 

The City of Richmond is selling them a developer’s dream site along the Point Molate shoreline, featuring million-dollar views of the bay. 

Levine says he hopes to build a $1.5 billion “five star resort” that would be California’s greenest-ever major construction project, complete with solar-powered condos and biofueled ferries to haul Asian high-rollers to and from the city. 

A first class showroom, haute cuisine, hotels aplenty and gilt-edged shopping are all in the plans, an opulent setting for the heart of the project, with slots and plenty of table action for all and high buy-in, super-stakes play for the gilt-edged few. 

The Guidivilles mustered a similarly gilt-edged group of backers, starting with Levine, who brought in former Defense Secretary William Cohen—the casino site, a former Navy refueling station, is being handed off to the city and thence to the casino venture through a process ultimately overseen by the department Cohen headed. 

Harrahs Entertainment was the original corporate backer, now replaced by the Rumsey Band of Wintuns, who operate one of California’s richest gambling resorts, the Cache Creek Casino in Yolo County’s Capay Valley.  

The Scotts Valley Band of Pomos have more modest dreams, what old-time casino barons would have called a “grind joint,” a gambling parlor that caters as much to blue collars as to white.  

They plan luxury condos for their casino, located on a less-glamorous site in unincorporated North Richmond. No hotel rooms, either, just a $200 million gambling hall and down-scale entertainment geared not at million-dollar betters from Macau—“whales” in casino-speak—but mom and pop bettors from around the Bay. 

The man behind the Sugar Bowl is Alan H. Ginsburg, a Florida-based tribal casino developer, who has remained steadfastly behind the scenes, unlike Levine, who appears at public and private meetings and answers calls from reporters. 

Ginsburg has never returned calls to this paper and has kept a low profile in the online realm as well. He had also pushed a now-tabled plan to build a casino near Oakland Airport.  

The Scotts Valley casino has already completed the federal environmental review process, and a state level EIR had also been done but the project has hit one legal snafu. 

In November 2006, the Richmond City Council approved an agreement promising the city $335 million in tribal funds over the next 20 years in exchange for police, fire and other services. 

But casino opponents, including recently elected East Bay Regional Parks District Board Member Whitney Dotson, the Parchester Village Neighborhood Council, Citizens for Eastshore Parks and the Sustainability, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Defense Fund (SPRAWLDEF), filed suit, challenging the council vote on the grounds the city had failed to conduct an environmental impact review (EIR) of the consequences of the agreement, which included roadway and traffic changes. 

In August, Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Barbara Zuniga ruled that the Municipal Services Agreement (MSA) between the city and the Scotts Valley band of Pomos violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). 

That ruling is currently on appeal. 

A loss for the city would mean additional delays while the review was completed.  

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which oversees reservations and manages the transition from public to tribal land, maintains a website for the Point Molate environmental review process at http://pointmolateeis-eir.com/ 

Neither the BIA nor Analytical Environmental Services, the Sacramento firm preparing the Point Molate environmental report returned calls to a reporter who wanted to know when the report would be issued.  

The Point Molate developers’ website makes no mention of the environmental review: www. pointmolateresort.com. 

Only one Point Molate opposition website appears to be online, a creation of Point Richmond residents. It is rarely updated and has attracted few comments:http://pointmolate.blogspot.com. 

Few updates and no options for commenting are available on the Sugar Bowl opposition site, www.stopparkwaycasino. com. Dubbed Neighbors Against the Parkway Casino, the site has been bankrolled, at least in part, by the card clubs that would be more likely rivals for the North Richmond grind joint than the Point Molate carpet joint. This site, too, is rarely updated. 

Nationally, the casino industry has been hard hit by recession, and some tribes have delayed or canceled plans to build new casinos or expand existing ones. Las Vegas, the nation’s premiere gambling resort, has seen its business decline as well.