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North Richmond casino remains a quiet possibility

on September 30, 2011

Grand plans for a casino in the city of Richmond have died since both city residents and the City Council voted against building a sprawling shoreline casino at Point Molate in the last year. Yet amidst the anti-casino sentiment, a similar plan in unincorporated North Richmond remains a quiet possibility.

Called the Sugar Bowl, the casino would house close to 2,000 slot machines, 55 table games, a dedicated poker room with 16 tables, and an exclusive “high rollers” room. At nearly 100,000 square feet, the gaming floor would mirror that of an average Las Vegas casino, and much like a Vegas casino, would come replete with additional features — a buffet, full service restaurant, sports bar, retail shops, and a 24,000 square-foot events center. It’s slated for a 30-acre parcel of industrial land on Parr Boulevard, abutting Richmond Parkway.

The project is being spearheaded by the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians, a tribe that, according to tribe consultant Eric Zell, considers itself separate and distinct from the Guidiville Band that backed the now-defunct Point Molate casino.

“Pomo is just a dialect,” Zell said. “They are independent tribes, independent families. They have their own histories and genealogical connections and they are not one in the same.”

Simply by its location, the Sugar Bowl Casino can avoid many of the pitfalls that doomed Point Molate — since it’s in unincorporated North Richmond, the casino doesn’t need the City Council’s approval. It does, though, need someone to provide municipal services — and that, the city has agreed to do, Zell said. Richmond signed a $330 million municipal services agreement with Scotts Valley in 2006 after Contra Costa County officials refused.

“The federal government wants you to prove that you can provide municipal services,” Zell said. “The county was not interested in entering into an agreement, so we made an agreement with the city to provide police and fire services. That agreement exists. That agreement was accepted and approved by the City Council.”

While the casino wouldn’t need the city’s OK, it does need federal approval — the longest and most difficult step toward making an Indian casino a reality. After years of waiting and after the City Council and public had already rejected the Point Molate casino, the U.S. Department of the Interior also refused the Guidiville Band’s application.

The Point Molate plan, though, was much more expansive than the proposed Sugar Bowl plan: 10 times the acreage, twice the number of slot machines, an 1,100 room hotel, a massive mall and conference center.

Federal approval is an exceedingly complex process that takes years to review. Carmen Facio, a realty officer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said she “didn’t think there was any standard time frame” and noted that the Bureau pays particular attention to the relationship between the proposed Indian gaming site and the surrounding community.

Zell said he’s optimistic, and that he believes the Guidiville denial has no bearing on the Sugar Bowl ruling. The Scotts Valley Band has been waiting for a federal ruling on its tribal gaming application since 2005.

“We think [the Department of the Interior] is very close to making a decision,” Zell said. “I think that what’s important is they said no to Guidiville, not Scotts Valley. We believe that the facts of the application are very, very different in Scotts Valley’s case.”

The Scotts Valley Band’s hopes for a casino in North Richmond exist in an uncertain political climate regarding Indian gaming. Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced the Lytton Gaming Oversight Act in Congress earlier this year, which if passed would prevent a third Pomo Indian Band, the Lytton Band, from expanding what is the only casino in the Bay Area, the San Pablo Lytton Casino.

In 2000, the Lytton Band was federally approved for a tribal gaming site in San Pablo. The tribe was able to circumvent the traditional application process with the help of Rep. George Miller, who inserted special language into the Omnibus Indian Advancement Act that placed the land into a federal trust. Through this maneuver, the Lytton Band was not required to demonstrate a historical or modern connection to the land, both of which are usually necessary for federal approval.

For Scotts Valley, on the other hand, demonstrating this connection is essential. In 1965, the band lost its federal recognition. In 1991, the federal status was restored, but the band remains without a reservation of its own. Without that land, Scotts Valley is applying for a federal Indian gaming site under an exception to the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which allows for landless tribes to apply for federal land. The site in North Richmond, including the casino, would become the band’s reservation.

Miller said there’s no extrapolating the Lytton decision to other tribes.

“That was a very unique situation,” Miller said. “That’s very different from these tribes that are making a determination that they want to locate in an area or not.”

Miller said he was neither for nor against the Sugar Bowl casino moving forward.

“That’s up to the Department of the Interior,” he said. “It’s up to the tribe. And it’s up to the citizens of Richmond. That’s the way it should be.”

Ultimately, Scotts Valley’s largest hurdle may rest with the county. “The county has passed a policy of being against the expansion of urban gaming in Contra Costa,” said County Supervisor John Gioia.

The Point Molate casino, which the county did support, “was an exception to the policy,” Gioia said.

“The county didn’t have the ultimate power to approve or stop the project because that project was in the city of Richmond,” Gioia said. “If Richmond was supporting it and had an agreement, the county did not want to have what happened in San Pablo.”

Since the Lytton Band in San Pablo had its land for the casino given to them by the federal government, the band did not have to make any revenue-sharing agreements with the county government. That’s what Gioia said he fears could happen if the North Richmond casino comes to fruition — a situation where the county misses out on a piece of casino revenue but is stuck with the negative societal and economic consequences of gambling.

Gioia said the county has provided documents to the Department of Interior expressing its disapproval of the North Richmond casino, with the hopes of influencing the decision for a tribal gaming site. With no indication of when that decision will come, Scotts Valley and the county continue to wait.

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