A proposal to build Sacramento County’s first tribal casino is stirring up a debate that started when the state’s first American Indian bingo parlors opened in the 1980s: Will a new casino benefit the larger community or mainly enrich the tribe that runs it?
Today that question centers on Sacramento County and the cities of Galt, population 24,000, and Elk Grove, home to more than 160,000 residents.
The local Wilton Rancheria tribe had its tribal status and land taken away in the late 1950s. It won back federal recognition as a tribe but not its traditional lands near Wilton, and many of its members are impoverished and unemployed.
The now-landless tribe has identified the two cities in southern Sacramento County as the main places where it would like to acquire tribal land and build a 12-story hotel tower, a convention center and a 110,000-square-foot gambling floor filled with slot machines and table games.
The proposed size of the project puts it in the same league as some of Northern California’s largest gambling meccas, including the Thunder Valley Casino Resort near Lincoln, operated by the United Auburn Indian Community.
Galt residents and city officials have voiced mixed emotions, from anti-gambling sentiments to concerns about traffic to eagerness for the hundreds of jobs the project could generate. Elk Grove residents are just starting to understand that a site along Highway 99 adjacent to the city’s half-built “ghost mall” now may be the tribe’s first choice, partly because of objections in Galt.
The Galt site remains “Alternative A” in the tribe’s application for land to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, said Wilton Rancheria Chairman Raymond “Chuckie” Hitchcock. “But the Elk Grove alternative is an A-minus or maybe even an A-plus,” he said.
Another spot under consideration is the tribe’s historic rancheria in rural Wilton, though the tribe no longer owns the lands, and the site is not one of its preferred options.
Hitchcock said the proposed casino resort could generate about 1,750 full-time jobs plus hundreds of constructions jobs during a two-year build-out. Those workers would spend their money at local stores, buy homes and cars, and boost the casino’s economic benefits through what economists call a multiplier effect.
“It just goes on and on,” Hitchcock said.
Residents and local officials have little say in the world of Indian lands and gaming. The federal government controls almost all Native American affairs. But locals can slow down the process with objections and legal actions. That’s why the Wilton Rancheria tribe is looking for a receptive city, where locals see a casino resort as an economic and cultural benefit.
Though it’s still early in the planning process, with construction likely years away, the discussion of potential pros and cons is underway in southern Sacramento County.
Silvia Rodriguez, a resident of Elk Grove’s Laguna Greens neighborhood, attended a community meeting Thursday night to address a recent rash of gun violence. She said she didn’t think a casino would fit with Elk Grove’s family-friendly neighborhoods and would only bring more safety problems.
“There needs to be a real economic justification,” she said.
Leaders in Elk Grove are just starting to take the casino plan seriously. The city recently posted information about the project on its website, and city planners have begun examining the details, Councilman Steven Detrick said.
“A lot of people think we have the power to say yes or no,” Detrick said. “All we can do is say, ‘If you guys were to come here, these are the concerns.’ ”
Potential problems include the need for additional police and fire services and measures to ease traffic congestion, the councilman said.
Tribes enter into revenue-sharing compacts with the state and typically reimburse counties for the negative effects of casino projects. Thunder Valley, for instance, pays Placer County more than $4 million annually to offset the county’s additional law enforcement and fire expenses and $2 million more in place of lost property taxes. (As sovereign nations, tribes are immune from state and local regulation, including taxes.)
Robert Weygandt, chairman of the Placer County Board of Supervisors, said negotiations with the United Auburn Indian Community began contentiously when the tribe was planning its Thunder Valley casino in the early 2000s, but over time the county-tribe relationship evolved into a respectful one.
The mitigation fees the tribe pays more than offset the county’s costs for emergency services and treating problem gamblers, Weygandt said. The casino and its concerts bring in visitors from outside the area who frequent local businesses, he said. And Thunder Valley employs 2,500 workers, many of whom live in the southern Placer County cities of Lincoln, Rocklin and Roseville.
In Elk Grove, Howard Hughes Corp. now owns the 28-acre site near Grant Line Road that the tribe might buy. Work on the adjacent shopping mall ceased during the recession in 2008, but plans now call for it to be a premium outlet mall with a 14-screen movie theater. Having a casino resort next door could bolster both projects, tribal and city officials have said.
Detrick said the casino project could bring five-star restaurants and a luxury hotel to Elk Grove, which lacks such amenities. In the best-case scenario, “it actually becomes a net gain to the city, not a net negative,” he said.
Cheryl Schmit, director of the gambling watchdog group Stand Up for California, said the potential economic effects of a casino are overblown. Tribal enterprises could undermine similar local businesses and take away tax dollars from local governments, she said.
“Your gas stations. Your hotels. Your restaurants. Small businesses operate sometimes on a shoestring,” Schmit said. “It doesn’t take much to take away their market and they’re done.”
Experts say that whether a casino gives an economic boost to its surrounding area often hinges on factors such as the number of out-of-town visitors it draws and how many local residents it employs.
In either Galt or Elk Grove, the Wilton Rancheria project would be near a large local workforce and strategically positioned along Highway 99 between Sacramento and Stockton, and at least a half hour closer to the Bay Area than Thunder Valley and other large area casinos.
In recent years, Alan Mallach studied the effects of casinos on communities as a fellow with the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. For a casino to provide economic uplift to its surrounding area, it must pull in new customers and not simply siphon business from nearby casinos, he said.
The Sacramento region has several tribal casinos that are among the 10 largest in the state, according to the American Indian information website 500 Nations.
Thunder Valley, in southern Placer County, has 2,800 slot machines, a 144,000-square-foot gambling floor, a hotel and a spa, it says. Red Hawk Casino, near the community of Shingle Springs in the foothills of El Dorado County, has an 88,000-square-foot gambling floor and 2,100 slot machines, the website says. And Cache Creek Casino Resort, in rural Yolo County, has a golf course and a 200-room hotel in addition to its 2,400 slot machines.
The Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort in Amador County rounds out the region’s four biggest gambling halls.
“There’s no denying there’s a competitive market here in this region,” said Doug Elmets, a spokesman for the United Auburn Indian Community. He said 70 percent of patrons at the tribe’s Thunder Valley casino come from the Sacramento region, but that Thunder Valley and other casinos compete for gamblers from the Bay Area by offering amenities such as high-end restaurants and golf courses.
“The mecca for casinos is the San Francisco Bay Area,” Elmets said. “That is where the Asian gambler is. It’s a key market for casinos all around.”
Mallach said the competition for a limited customer base could ultimately harm the capital region’s other casinos and undermine the welfare of their host communities. If the Sacramento region’s gambling market is already saturated, he said, a new casino might siphon dollars away from established tribal enterprises without generating new sources of revenue.
“The big question is this: Is there an additional casino market in the Bay Area that hasn’t been fully tapped by existing casinos?” Mallach said. “If the answer is ‘yes,’ then it would certainly be a net plus for Sacramento and the Central Valley economy, which needs jobs and growth.
“Otherwise,” he said, “you’re not creating new wealth. You’re just moving money around.”