Putting Elk Grove casino in empty mall may be best of bad options

Wilton Rancheria tribal members and their guests gather during a news conference Tuesday at the site of the never-finished mall in Elk Grove.
Wilton Rancheria tribal members and their guests gather during a news conference Tuesday at the site of the never-finished mall in Elk Grove. rpench@sacbee.com

California does not need another casino.

Casinos don’t create sustainable jobs or real economic development for cities. Some have been magnets for crime and for gambling addicts desperate for a jackpot.

But for all the unseemliness of casinos, the Wilton Rancheria Indian tribe is within its rights to pursue building one in Sacramento County. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, authorizing tribes to operate casinos so long as state law allowed them. In 2000, California voters approved Las Vegas-style casinos on Indian land. As much as we dislike casinos, the location – an ugly, half-built shopping mall off Highway 99 in Elk Grove – is not terrible.

On Friday, the Trump administration’s Interior Department, finishing a process begun in the Obama administration, took 36 acres at the site into trust for the tribe. That means the property, which Wilton Rancheria and business partner Boyd Gaming of Las Vegas bought last month in anticipation of federal approval, is now Indian land.

Assuming the tribe, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature can work out a gambling compact, a casino could open there within five years without Elk Grove’s input, providing income for the tribe’s mostly local 700 members.

“After six decades of being landless,” an emotional Raymond Hitchcock, chairman of the tribe, said Tuesday, “we now have a home.”

The Interior Department’s decision was a dream come true for Wilton Rancheria members, though it is a nightmare for many Elk Grove residents, who have packed City Council meetings to complain about the casino and pushed for a referendum in vain hopes of stopping it.

We understand why people object. Undoubtedly, lawsuits will continue. But city officials had few options for the long-debated casino, or for the half-built mall. If one must be built, a casino off Highway 99 is preferable to other sites the tribe considered in more rural areas. The abandoned mall property has infrastructure in place, unlike other rural sites.

The mall’s developer, Howard Hughes Corp., says the casino will drive foot traffic to shops, and to a planned hotel, restaurants and a convention center. Construction has yet to begin, but the tribe has vowed to provide $132 million to help with traffic mitigation and other costs to the city. It’s up to Brown and the Legislature to insist on such payments as part of the compact, relying on advice from Elk Grove’s mayor, Steve Ly, and the council.

We understand why many Elk Grove residents object. But given the law signed by Reagan, the 2000 statewide vote and the Interior Department’s action, Elk Grove residents seem to be out of options.