Council approves extension for Point Molate developer
on January 12, 2010
The City Council voted Monday to extend a deadline to reach an agreement with the developer behind the Point Molate casino project.
Had the council failed to grant a two-month extension to allow the developer, Upstream Point Molate LLC, to close the purchase, sale and lease of the land involved, the city would have scrapped a five-year-old agreement to earmark the land for the 240,000-square-foot casino.
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and council members Jeff Ritterman and Tom Butt voted to let the agreement expire. Butt had previously supported the casino proposal, but reversed his position at the last council meeting.
“I‘m just sort of tired of bumping my head against the wall,” Butt said at the time. “It’s a lot easier for me to just bail out and say, ‘look, I’m just going to oppose it, period.’”
But rather than simply “bail out,” he returned to the council Monday with a litany of questions that left a trio of city workers stumbling for answers.
The council began negotiating with the developer behind closed doors months ago, but when the two couldn’t reach an agreement before a Jan. 5 deadline, the ongoing negotiations were thrust into the public sphere.
When developer Jim Levine first proposed opening a casino at Point Molate with the Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians the group was backed by Harrah’s Casino, but the company backed out more than a year ago. Levine claims he’s found a new investor in the tribe behind the Cache Creek casino, but the city’s agreement with the developer still lists Harrah’s as the financial backer.
“Why are we here at the 11th hour asking for an extension after five years if we’ve known for over a year that this has to be done,” asked Butt before unleashing his criticism on the city employees. “Even though we have an alleged financial partner, no one from the city has ever taken any steps to try to ascertain whether that partner is actually on board?”
Butt also criticized the staff for having not sought out experts to address issues pertaining to the environmental impact report for the casino, and he grew visibly frustrated when the panel of workers said they couldn’t answer his questions.
“You’re telling me that because Richard Mitchell is not here tonight staff has no answer?” he said. “I hate to say it but I’m badly disappointed that our staff has done no due diligence at all. Virtually all the information has come from Upstream. It’s been passed by staff as if it were the gospel itself.”
Speaking during the public comment session, which drew more than 20 residents who were almost evenly divided, Levine defended his proposal.
“This extension is really to allow the time to work out the range of issues. … (It’s) really for the benefit of both parties,” he said. “It’s also very interesting that when people say things and they repeat them many times they start to believe that they are true. … there has not been a financing problem.”
Devin O’Keefe, a resident who described himself as “a member of the unemployed,” later used Levine’s own words to suggest that his assurances were hollow.
“He keeps saying that the money is secure,” said O’Keefe. “It’s funny how people come to believe something when they repeat it over and over.”
Most of the residents who spoke in favor of the casino said that it would bring much needed jobs to the city. The developer has agreed to hire unemployed Richmond residents to help build and operate the casino.
“I live for jobs,” said former council member John Marquez. “We can stand up here and be cynical about a lot of things. … (But) Let’s give people hope. Let’s not just cut (Levine) off because we’ve got our own jobs and we’ve got our security.”
Council member Maria Viramontes, who referenced her experience working on multibillion dollar deals as a board member for an investment firm, said that refusing to grant the extension could open the city up to lawsuits. She said the decision to grant the extension is completely separate from approving the casino itself.
“What the council has before it today is a legal document. You can have an opinion, but it may not be an informed opinion,” said Viramontes. To develop such a large project “it takes vision. It takes problem solving at a skill level that would put most people to shame, and it does require people skills for the long run. Unfortunately our council members haven’t exhibited these skills.”
Though the council gave the developer a two-month extension, it will need to reach a permanent agreement before it can move forward. Beyond the local hurdles, the Guidiville Band will also need approval from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar before it can take over the land.
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