Elk Grove council approves $132 million casino deal after ardent debate

Rendering of future Elk Grove casino complex
Rendering of future Elk Grove casino complex City of Elk Grove

A south Sacramento County Indian tribe has picked up significant momentum in its bid to build a $400 million gambling destination in a prime freeway location along Highway 99 south of California’s capital.

The Elk Grove City Council approved a development and revenue sharing agreement with the Wilton Rancheria on Wednesday night after a packed council chambers delivered a vehement discussion on whether the tribal casino would be a job-creating benefit or a threat to the quality of life in the Sacramento suburb of 161,000 residents.

In the end, the council’s four other members sided with Mayor Gary Davis, who said he believed the project would provide an economic boon to the city that wouldn’t damage its character as “a diverse, family-oriented community.” He also argued that the city couldn’t stop the casino if federal agencies approve the tribe’s plans.

The Wilton tribe has applied with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Indian Gaming Commission to acquire the land it needs to operate the casino. If that happens, Gov. Jerry Brown or a future California governor is expected to negotiate a gambling agreement with the tribe.

“The bottom line is that if the federal government says yes to the tribe, this project will happen.” Davis said. “I respect the sovereignty of the tribe. They have a legal right to do what they are doing.”

The 700-member Wilton Rancheria has promised to pay the community $132 million over 20 years to offset the impacts of the tribe’s development near 99 and Grant Line Road, with continuing payments afterward along with adjustments for inflation. City officials said the agreement would pay Elk Grove twice the amount of revenue of a retail project of the same scale.

The tribe is seeking to build a resort that would include a 12-story, 302-room hotel, a convention center and entertainment facility along with restaurants, bars and a sprawling gambling floor next to a half-built shopping mall that stalled in the recession and is now planned for outlet stores.

In a City Council chambers crowded with button-wearing tribal members backing the project, Wilton Rancheria Chairman Raymond C. Hitchcock hailed the casino venture as an economic catalyst for Elk Grove, with the tribe as a revenue-producing partner in “a lifelong relationship” with the community.

“We’re going to be the catalyst to get the outlet mall up and running, and have those retail stores we’ve been waiting for for many years ... with great entertainment options we all want and deserve,” said Hitchcock, who said the development will produce more than 1,750 full-time jobs.

But Patty Johnson, a retired teacher and longtime Elk Grove resident, complained that citizens were being denied information and input by the city as a massive gambling development was being forced upon the community.

“Elk Grove has been very marketable over the years because of its schools, parks and small-town atmosphere,” Johnson said. “This is our brand. The casino damages our brand … This is not how democracy is supposed to function. We don’t want this casino. We are not a place where people come to throw away money they cannot afford to lose.”

Resident Suzanne Pecci was equally vehement in opposition. “You have left us high and and dry,” she said, scolding City Council members. “When you ran for office, was this the vision you had?”

But all five City Council members said they felt the tribe had worked earnestly, and in good faith, to offset the impacts of a casino and make a financial investment in the community. Only one seemed to hesitate before casting a “yes” vote.

“I’m conflicted. That’s my honest-to-god feeling,” said council member Steve Ly. He said he wasn’t a fan of casinos, but added: “I’ll be honest. I’d be the first to line up for the buffet.”

The new gambling facility would likely be a major regional competitor to one of California’s most lucrative tribal destinations, the Thunder Valley Casino Resort off Highway 65 near Lincoln.

It would join a crowded gambling market that includes the Red Hawk Casino in Shingle Springs, Cache Creek Casino Resort in Yolo County and the Jackson Rancheria in Amador County. Another tribe, the Enterprise Rancheria, has suspended construction on a $170 million gambling resort near Marysville.

The tribe’s casino development, on 36 acres along the southern edge of Elk Grove, would require demolishing four buildings erected as part of the earlier shopping mall project. Construction on the mall stopped during the economic downturn, and the city has since pinned its hopes on an outlet mall proposed for the abandoned site. The planned Outlet Collection at Elk Grove is also to include a 14-screen movie theater.

Kevin Kemper, an attorney for the Howard Hughes Corp., which owns the defunct mall and adjoining property, told the City Council that approving the casino agreement would trigger “an unbelievable synergy of land use at this location” and send a strong message to prospective tenants.

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