Local casino opposition crumbling
on November 11, 2009
CLARIFICATION: Council member Jeff Ritterman, who is quoted in the story, told Richmond Confidential that his position on the casino wasn’t portrayed accurately. In an effort to ensure the council member’s position is clear Richmond Confidential has agreed to publish his complete clarifying remarks.
Opposition to a Las Vegas-style casino resort in Richmond is collapsing as casino backers hand over promises for millions of dollars, thousands of jobs and major environmental concessions.
A formerly divided Richmond City Council has softened its stance. Residents and officials are clamoring for employment, and the county Board of Supervisors Tuesday reversed its initial opposition to the project in exchange for a $12 million annual cut of casino profits.
“The project is dynamic,” developer Jim Levine said. “It’ll be one of the major destinations of any kind—tribal or not—in California.”
The controversial casino project would grant a California tribe federal trust land to build what’s known as a Type III casino—one with blackjack, slots and other games that pit the gambler against the house. This would be the first time in the state’s history that a tribe would be given urban land for such a venture. Some opponents say the project could change the landscape of the East Bay into the urban gaming capital of the country.
“A casino in Richmond,” Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said, “is outrageous.”
McLaughlin is one of the few vocal opponents still standing. In September, Senator Dianne Feinstein and four other senators sent a letter to the Secretary of the Interior stating their strong opposition to taking off-reservation lands into trust for gaming purposes. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has issued a proclamation against urban Indian casinos and recently filed a letter of opposition with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the City of Richmond. And a local group called the Coalition to Save Point Molate is also still fighting the project.
The decision ultimately rests with the Interior Secretary, who will take into consideration local sentiment. In the face of diminishing resistance, the dominoes are falling fast toward construction of what would be one of the biggest urban casino resorts in California—right on the Richmond shore.
Empty land on the waterfront
Point Molate, with its grassy hills, prime bayshore property and sparkling views of the San Francisco skyline, fell into the hands of the City of Richmond in 2003. That year, the city bought 85 percent of the old fuel depot from the Navy for $1 under the Base Realignment and Closure Act. One of the stipulations of the deal was that the area had to be developed in a self-sustaining and economically viable way.
In 2004, the city entered into a land disposition agreement—a terms-of-sale document vaguely resembling a lease—with a development firm called Upstream Point Molate, LLC. Upstream management partner and developer Jim Levine represents the Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians. The 112-member tribe currently owns 44 acres near Ukiah, and they are petitioning the federal government to take Point Molate into trust as reservation land. The petition appears to rest on whether their proposal has the support of the community and if they can prove an historical tie to the area.
While the tribe awaits a ruling from the Secretary of the Interior, Levine has been working hard to secure the property for development.
He’s paid the City of Richmond $15 million toward the final purchase price of $50 million. Levine owes another $5 million in January, said Janet Schneider, administrative chief at the Richmond city manager’s office. That’s a total of $20 million in nonrefundable deposits—money Levine won’t get back if the project doesn’t move forward. A promissory note will permit Levine to pay the remaining $30 million over a 15-year period if the City Council clears the way for the casino.
In March 2005, the city and the Bureau of Indian Affairs embarked on a joint environmental impact review of Point Molate. The draft Environmental Impact Review (EIR) was released in July and presents six alternatives for the use of the land, ranging from a casino resort to total parkland. Alternative B is the Guidiville project. It includes not just a casino but also an entertainment complex about the size of a football field, two hotels, a retail village and more than 300 residential homes—about one-third for the tribe and two-thirds to be sold on the open market, according to Levine.
The EIR also guarantees the city $20 million each year. Part of that money is a service fee for police, fire protection and road maintenance the city will provide at the resort.
Before any project can move forward, the Richmond City Council must now decide whether to certify the EIR. “What we’ve been told is that the [Department of the] Interior will view certification of the EIR as indication of local support for the transfer,” Janet Schneider said. “The assumption now is that [the City Council] will certify the EIR.”
What once looked like a significant hurdle now seems to be a simple hop. At least two council members who were once anti-gaming are looking favorably at Upstream’s plans.
The environmental payoff
City Council members Maria Viramontes and Jeff Ritterman were initially skeptical of the project and wary of urban gambling. Both are focused on environmental concerns, they said.
Viramontes said she still isn’t a proponent of casinos in her city, but she likes the project’s guarantees for open space, trail access and conservation, and she said she’s committed to follow through on the city’s promise to the Navy to develop the area in an economically viable way.
“I’m not comfortable with urban gambling as a California state policy,” Viramontes said, “but you have to judge a proposal on its merit or its lack of merit. It sounds like an interesting and lovely project.”
Ritterman concurred. “I’m not a big fan of urban gaming, so there’s a major downside to that,” he said. “But a lot of my support hinges on
environmental concerns, so if the environmental payoff is considerably large, I’ll look past the gaming aspect.”
Ritterman said he’s been in close contact with conservation groups about what would constitute a large environmental payoff, and he’s waiting on the outcome of a lawsuit filed against Upstream by the Citizens for East Shore Parks. Ritterman said he anticipates a “pretty good settlement” that includes a promise from Upstream to preserve Richmond’s entire northern shoreline.
Levine said shoreline accessibility is important.
“We’ve identified opportunities to achieve some magnificent open-space goals with Citizens for East Shore Parks,” Levine said, “and we’re exploring how to finalize that.”
Representatives from Citizens for East Shore Parks would not comment on the tentative agreement.
The toxic cleanup
When the Navy’s fuel depot shut down, Point Molate housed twenty 50,000-gallon tanks of bulk fuel. According to the EIR, those containers have already been cleaned out and the fuel hauled away. Part of the city’s land disposition agreement with Upstream is that the company must dig up the old tanks and get them to a landfill before construction can begin.
Levine estimates that process will cost $32 million. The majority of that—$28.5 million—will come from the Navy, according to Janet Schneider. She said that money is due to transfer to the city “any day now.” Then the city will send the funds to Upstream for the environmental remediation. Levine said he and the tribe will contribute the rest of the money.
The California Regional Water Quality Control Board is overseeing the process. Board spokeswoman Sandy Potter confirmed that inspectors will schedule the cleanup and test groundwater quality.
Richmond councilman Nathaniel Bates has backed the project from the beginning because Levine and the tribe are promising about 17,000 new jobs. “It’s a financial goldmine for Richmond,” he said, pointing to the stipulation in the EIR that the Guidiville Band hire city residents for at least 40 percent of its “operational” positions.
The available jobs may not call for highly skilled applicants, but that’s a plus, Bates said. “Hotel staffing, cooks, cashiers, janitors—all carry with them a living-wage salary that people can afford to live comfortably on,” Bates said. He said the city has set the living wage salary at $14 to $15 per hour.
“We’re signed up to comply with the city’s living wage requirements,” Levine said, as stipulated in the EIR, “but our average wage will well exceed that.” If Levine hadn’t signed that agreement, the tribe—as a sovereign nation not subject to city mandates—wouldn’t have had to meet the living wage requirements.
Outspoken casino opponent McLaughlin called the employment projections a “pipe dream” and criticized the jobs as low-quality and low-paying.
“A casino economy has never helped us,” she said.
Levine dismissed her criticism. “The mayor was against the project before she saw any projections, and she’ll keep coming up with reasons as to why she’s against it,” he said. “I don’t know if she even has the capacity to understand the projections.”
A dwindling faction of opponents continues to publicly battle Upstream and the tribe. Strident resistance comes from McLaughlin, who raises concerns that the ripple effects of gambling could include addiction, substance abuse, crime, bankruptcy and domestic violence.
In September, the Contra Costa County Administrator’s Office commissioned the Abaris Group in Walnut Creek to review existing studies on the impact of casinos. The review cites research into Casino San Pablo by the East Bay Coalition Against Urban Casinos. That study found that after the casino added 548 slot machines in 2006, burglary and general disturbance calls on the grounds and in surrounding neighborhoods tripled, and rates of vehicle theft nearly quadrupled.
The Abaris review also states that the negative effects on Richmond’s public health “would be significant, particularly in terms of tobacco use and asthma” in a community “already burdened with severe environmental hazards.”
Levine disputes the health and safety concerns. “The ills associated with problem gambling are the same as the ones associated with unemployment,” he said.
Also standing in opposition to the casino is a front of environmental groups, church leaders and others collectively called the Coalition to Save Point Molate—many of whose public relations consultants and interns are financed by rival card clubs in Emeryville, the South Bay and the Peninsula, according to Coalition spokesman Andrés Soto.
Soto accuses local officials of caving before the prospect of Levine’s millions of dollars. “[Levine] is trying to pick off the opposition using the appeal of money,” he said, and local government is “willing to sell out the community for a pittance.”
Soto and McLaughlin are both skeptical of the plans for traffic management and the projections for visitors to the casino resort, many shipping in on the Vallejo ferry.
“The idea of thousands of people coming to Point Molate by ferry is ridiculous,” McLaughlin said. “People don’t come to vacation in San Francisco to go to the gambling casino.”
Levine counters that he’s also in talks with AC Transit and BART to help shuttle visitors.
The final say
In some measure, the fate of the Guidiville casino resort rests in the City Council’s hands. Certification of the EIR is tantamount to the city’s blessing for the project. And, according to City of Richmond senior planner Lina Velasco, certification must be based only on whether the review meets guidelines set by the California Environmental Quality Act.
The City Council could make what’s known as a statement of overriding considerations if members find there are “unavoidable significant impacts” to the environment, Velasco said. Even then, city staffers would be directed to make the necessary changes in order for the EIR to move forward.
If it does, there will be one less obstacle between the 112 members of the Guidiville Band and a new reservation on Richmond’s shoreline—a reservation that will bring cash, jobs and an urban casino of unprecedented size and scope.
Tomorrow: A look into how a tribe acquires trust land for an urban casino.
The story so far:
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