Council ditches casino plan
on April 6, 2011
After years of controversy, Richmond’s City Council decided yesterday to nix plans for a casino at Point Molate. In a raucous five-hour meeting that dealt solely with the decision on whether to continue considering a plan to build a $1.2 billion dollar Las Vegas-style gaming resort, councilmembers voted 5-to-2, with Nat Bates and Jim Rogers dissenting, to end the six-year debate over the casino plan.
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin motioned to end consideration of the casino plan, citing a dozen points of concern including studies that connected gaming to increased crime, drunk driving and drug addiction. She said the casino resort would also increase traffic congestion, and be an economic drain to the city and its residents.
Council member Jovanka Beckles seconded the motion, saying the project had failed to obtain federal approval. “The Bureau of Indian Affairs has not given a timeline for a decision-making process,” she said. She added that it was clearly the will of Richmond residents ditch the casino plan.
Three of the six proposed plans for Point Molate have included a tribal casino to be run by the Guidiville Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians. Upstream Point Molate, LLC has spearheaded the proposal to build a tribal casino resort in the former Naval fuel station. Because the site is still contaminated and a couple dozen buildings still stand on the land, developing Point Molate is an expensive prospect.
The original casino plan called for a Las Vegas-style resort including a casino, a conference center, two hotels, performance centers, retail space and tribal government offices to be built on the more than 400-acre shoreline property. In addition, Upstream and the Guidivilles, who would take over the land and whose tribal designation would allow legal gaming, said they would pay for the cleanup of the site and ensure extra habitat protections, build out an extension of the Bay Trail, and that at least 40 percent of the jobs at the resort would go to Richmond residents.
The plan for the casino has made strange bedfellows over the years it’s been debated. Some environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have backed the plan to develop Point Molate as a massive gaming resort complex because the plan would fund extra protections for native habitats and the removal of invasive plant species. It also brought massive amounts of money into last fall’s election as supporters like building trades unions and the Guidivilles, as well as its opponents, including area card clubs that would face competition from a new casino, poured nearly a million dollars into ads.
Opposition has come from other environmental groups and nearby residents concerned about crime, the morality of gaming, addictions and traffic congestion. Many thought a casino resort would detract from the natural beauty of Point Molate. Some opponents argued that a casino plan would cede control over the land when it becomes sovereign tribal territory, and the tribe would then not be required to fulfill promises of local hiring and environmental rehabilitation.
Last fall, 58 percent of Richmond voters came out against Measure U, an advisory measure designed to gauge public opinion about the casino plan. Two of the three current council members elected last November—Jovanka Beckles and Corky Boozé—campaigned with strong anti-casino stands.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, council member Nat Bates, who has supported the casino idea since its inception as a vehicle to tackle Richmond’s chronically high unemployment rate, said the council’s opposition to the plan saddened him. “It’s sad to see this council turn their backs on a whole lot of people in this community who need jobs to support their families,” he said.
Bates also said the federal bill that ceded abandoned military bases to cities requires that development of the sites be financially sustainable for the city and not rely on city revenues to maintain the site. He said that alternative development plans would potentially violate this mandate because they would not create enough revenue to pay for cleanup and upkeep at Point Molate.
Jim Levine of Upstream Point Molate, LLC, the developer the city hired to come up with development ideas for the abandoned Navy base, said that without a casino, he was unsure how the city could pay for the cleanup of the site. “There are very few ways that you’re going to get that done in this economy,” he said.
Levine said the casino-resort plan is the only option for the site to provide regular jobs—which he estimated at 17,000—beyond the construction jobs involved in the initial development. “We did not want to build housing because housing does not leave jobs after the homes are finished,” he said. Levine also cited studies that estimated only one percent of the money spent at the casino would come from Richmond residents.
Many at the meeting challenged those numbers. Councilmember Corky Boozé said the jobs were a pipe dream. “They said people who look like me could come out of jail and go to work at the casino,” he said. “I checked, and you can’t get work in a casino if you’ve got a criminal record.”
Tuesday’s meeting was held in the auditorium at the City Center, across from the city council chambers, to accommodate the hundreds expected to attend the meeting. Out front, Citizens for a Sustainable Point Molate handed out signs opposing the casino at the front door. The Point Molate Project Office, funded by the Guidivilles, handed out sandwiches in front of the auditorium.
Inside the auditorium, two large sheets hung from the balcony, painted with a bold “Richmond voted no casino.” During three hours of public comment, people lined up to plead, rant, harangue and reason with the council. Two people used their time at the microphone to sing. Mayor McLaughlin repeatedly asked the audience to refrain from heckling speakers supporting the casino plan.
When Norman Laforce of the local Sierra Club chapter made the case that “there will be a major restoration of native habitats that will not happen otherwise,” he was booed and called a hypocrite and a turncoat.
By the end of the night when the councilmembers finally voted, the audience had thinned considerably. But when the council approved the decision to nix the casino, a cheer went up from the audience. As people got up to leave, casino opponents hugged and slapped each other on the backs. Bates, Levine and a half dozen other casino supporters huddled outside the auditorium. A few were shaking their heads.
Now that the casino plan is off the table, the issue of what to do with Point Molate remains up in the air. Upstream has 120 days to present non-casino development alternatives for Point Molate. It will take millions to clean up the land and millions more for any development.
Don Gosney, who previously served on a blue-ribbon committee to study closing the old Navy fuel depot, said he was disappointed by the decision. He said it would take at least five more years for any new plan at the site to break ground, and that he sees no fiscally viable option for the site.
“Upstream has other options, but will they be profitable in this economy?” he said. “No matter what, we’re talking up to a hundred million dollars to develop Point Molate.”
Regardless of the eventual future of the site, the city’s decision could lead to a protracted legal battle. Michael Derry, CEO of the Guidivilles, said the tribe has spent some $17 million to develop the plan and pay for security services at the site. He said the tribe was initially led to believe that the city wanted to build a casino. If the tribe could prove that city council was not operating in good faith, they could sue to recoup the costs of the project.
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