Business & Real Estate

Tribe halts construction on Yuba casino

Machines such as these remain in their crates as construction is halted on Fire Mountain Resort & Casino outside Marysville, just three months after ground was broken on the project.
Machines such as these remain in their crates as construction is halted on Fire Mountain Resort & Casino outside Marysville, just three months after ground was broken on the project. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

The Enterprise Rancheria Indian tribe halted construction Tuesday on its $170 million casino outside of Sacramento, blaming the owners of Thunder Valley Casino and other tribal competitors for filing “frivolous lawsuits” that have made it harder to obtain financing.

Three months after breaking ground on the Fire Mountain Resort & Casino outside Marysville, the tribe announced a “temporary suspension” of the project. It said it had secured interim financing but couldn’t secure “final permanent financing” until it had cleared up remaining legal obstacles.

“The continued delay-and-obstruct tactics of a small number of opponents have temporarily forced our tribe and community into this situation,” said tribal Chair Glenda Nelson in a prepared statement. “We still believe that the project will go forward, that key decisions will be made any day now, and that construction should take about a year once restarted.”

The tribe has been working on a fairly small, 50,000-square-foot casino under its so-called Class II gambling license, which would limit Fire Mountain to electronic versions of bingo and other games.

Enterprise Rancheria, though, wants the more desirable Class III license. That would allow more of a Vegas-style casino with full-fledged slot machines and table games, making Fire Mountain a more formidable competitor in the Sacramento market. The tribe has said it would likely expand the casino beyond its original footprint if it gets a Class III license.

The tribe’s lengthy quest for the Class III license sparked Enterprise’s legal woes. Although a federal judge ordered the state in February to sign a compact allowing Class III gambling operations, obstacles remain. The state and tribe couldn’t agree on a compact, prompting a mediator to step in. The mediator selected a version of the compact written by the tribe, but it still needs approval of the U.S. Interior Department, said tribal spokesman Charlie Banks-Altekruse.

As the Interior Department vets the compact, Enterprise Rancheria’s opponents are intensively lobbying in an effort to bottle up the process, he said.

Enterprise’s opponents are also fighting in court. The tribes that own Thunder Valley near Lincoln and Colusa Casino have teamed up with anti-gambling groups to sue the Interior Department over its decision to allow Enterprise Rancheria to acquire the Yuba County land for the Fire Mountain casino. A federal judge ruled against their challenge, but the Colusa tribe is seeking a new hearing on the matter.

“They know how to game the system, to drag it out,” said Banks-Altekruse. With the construction project requiring tens of millions of dollars a month, “we had to pull the plug,” he said.

Opponents say casinos should only be allowed on ancestral tribal lands, and the Enterprise tribe shouldn’t be allowed to build a casino 35 miles from its home in Butte County. They also say the tribe’s troubles with financing Fire Mountain aren’t their fault.

“It must be they’re looking to blame somebody for their inability to raise money to build an elaborate bingo hall off their reservation,” said Doug Elmets, a spokesman for Thunder Valley’s owner, the United Auburn Indian Community.

The Yuba County property is near the Toyota Amphitheatre, on the fringe of the Sacramento market. The tribe has said it would consider expanding the casino and adding a hotel if it gets a Class III license.

The project comes as other tribes look to build casinos in greater Sacramento, including one in Elk Grove proposed by Wilton Rancheria.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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