Elk Grove citizens turned out by the hundreds Wednesday to ask representatives of the Wilton Rancheria about a casino complex that the tribe proposes building at the city’s “ghost mall” site along Highway 99.
The proposed project would have a 12-story hotel, spa, fitness center and gambling floor with 2,000 slot machines, 84 gambling tables and a 30,000-square-foot event venue.
The proposal has stirred enthusiasm and controversy in the city of 160,000. At least 300 residents packed The Falls Event Center on Elk Grove Boulevard for a town-hall-style meeting to hear details of the project and ask questions of tribal leaders.
Mayor Gary Davis opened the meeting by saying he was as curious as other city residents about the pros and cons of the project.
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If the casino is built in Elk Grove, “we’re going to be neighboring a sovereign nation in our community,” Davis said.
That would present unique challenges, he noted, because Elk Grove officials do not have authority to approve or deny the project, as they would with typical development schemes, because of the tribe’s sovereignty.
Raymond Hitchcock, the tribal chairman, said the project would create 1,750 full-time jobs along with 1,600 construction jobs and bring tourists to the area. He said only about 2 percent of the facility would be the casino floor and the remainder would be the surrounding resort.
Residents submitted questions ranging from how the facility will mitigate drought concerns to how casino-related crimes, including driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, will be handled.
The questions were written down on pieces of paper and read aloud by Tonya Caldwell, a tribal officer. One person wrote, “Can this be stopped?” Another asked whether the tribe would install solar panels.
After the meeting, Kristen Davis, 44, said she is concerned about the negative impact the casino might have on Elk Grove’s young people.
“It’s so close to houses, to where I grew up,” she said. “It could bring some economic development, but I don’t think that outweighs the negative impact on our town.”
Johnny Campagne, 44, had a different take, saying he thinks housing values will go up and the project will help the economy.
As for the negative side effects of gambling, “it’s a choice that people make,” he said and not the fault of casino operators. Campagne said he goes to casinos outside the area and would rather spend his money in a casino near his home instead of taking business to other counties.
If built in Elk Grove, the casino would be the first major tribal gambling establishment in Sacramento County. Surrounding counties – including El Dorado, Placer and Yolo counties – already have major resorts.
The federal government will put land in trust for the Wilton Rancheria members, meaning Elk Grove residents will not have much of a say on the casino resort. Hitchcock said. But the tribe wants to work with the community, not against it, he said.
“This is our opportunity; we can give back to our community,” he said. “If we can be a philanthroper in this area, that would be great.”
The tribe will negotiate with the city to pay mitigation costs for impacts on roads, law enforcement and the environment, Hitchcock said. Wilton Rancheria has already agreed with Sacramento County to pay millions of dollars to offset impacts on social service agencies, roads and other county services. Sacramento County supervisors approved the agreement on June 8.
Wilton Rancheria chose Elk Grove for the casino after it decided the costs were too high to build an overpass to acreage near Galt it had originally sought to buy. There was also significant community disagreement about the casino in the small town.
In Elk Grove, the tribe has entered into a tentative agreement with Howard Hughes Corp. to acquire 36 acres near Highway 99 that have sat unused since plans to build a shopping mall there stalled during last decade’s recession. The Hughes company said it plans to build the Outlet Collection at Elk Grove on the remaining portion of the site, where the partly finished shell of a shopping mall now sits.
The Wilton Rancheria tribe lost federal recognition in 1964 and regained it in 2009, after 45 years in which its members struggled economically. More than 60 percent of the tribe is unemployed, according to Hitchcock.
The tribe is currently supported by federal grants. Hitchcock said the casino is an opportunity for the tribe to become self-sufficient and to provide services like a health clinic and scholarships for its members.