By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
SACRAMENTO — The Sonoma County Indian tribe that wants to open a casino adjacent to Rohnert Park secured some significant — if not exactly enthusiastic — support Wednesday from a Southern California tribe that runs one of the state’s largest casinos.
Speaking at an Assembly committee hearing, a lobbyist for the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in Riverside County said the tribe did not oppose an agreement that would allow the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria to open a 3,000-slot machine casino just west of Highway 101 behind the Scandia Family Fun Center.
“This is not a compact that we would have agreed to; every tribe is a sovereign nation. But we are not opposed to this compact,” said Paula Treat, referring to the agreement signed March 27 by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Officials with other tribes had suggested there would be widespread tribal opposition to the compact because it requires significantly more revenue sharing on the tribe’s part than many earlier compacts.
The Assembly hearing was the second time in two days that lawmakers have reviewed the compact, which the Legislature and the federal Interior Department must ratify before the tribe can start work on the project. A Senate committee discussed it Tuesday.
Wednesday’s hearing mostly reprised ground trodden Tuesday.
Opponents to the casino were mostly concerned about the environment; supporters argued it would create thousands of jobs and pump money into the North Bay economy while building financial health and stability to the 1,300-member tribe.
Some new information was revealed, including a federal requirement that is pressing the tribe to break ground soon.
The National Indian Gaming Commission’s order of approval for the project requires it start during the dry season, April 15 to October 15, said Scott Nielson, executive vice president and chief development officer for Station Casinos, a Las Vegas company bankrolling the venture and has been advancing the tribe money.
To ensure that is possible, the company and tribe will be working to get financing for the project, now estimated to cost about $700 million, while waiting for federal approval of the compact, he said.
Federated Indians tribal chairman Greg Sarris said the tribe is incurring $33,000-a-day interest debt to Station Casinos. That is a large part of the $230 million in pre-development costs it has accrued since announcing in 2003 it would open a casino on Highway 37, a site it later dropped in favor of Rohnert Park after an outcry from environmentalists.
The bulk of the tribe’s debt comes from its 2005 purchase of 254 acres off Wilfred Avenue for $100 million from now-bankrupt developer and financier Clem Carinalli and two other prominent North Bay businessmen.
Sarris said the tribe paid about 10 times more for the land than than the original asking price but it had run out of options trying to secure partners in non-gambling industries.
“I think it’s fair to say that the land sellers knew we were in a bind and they also knew we had what are considered deep pockets behind us,” he said.
Jacob Applesmith, a senior adviser to Brown who negotiated key parts of the compact, said the agreement is a good deal for everyone because it allows the tribe to realize substantial financial gains quickly while also containing provisions that will direct hundreds of millions of dollars to local governments and other tribes.
“This is a good compact for Sonoma, for Rohnert Park and for tribes around the state,” he said.
A representative of the California State Association of Counties agreed, saying it ensures tribal sovereignty is respected while containing “tools” to allow surrounding communities to ensure the casino’s effects are mitigated.
“The Graton compact does strike that balance, and we hope it serves as a template for future agreements,” said DeAnn Baker, senior legislative representative for the association.
Opponents drew a different picture.
“Putting in this casino is like putting in another town of 10,000 … in the middle of this over-drafted water plain, said Lloyd Iversen, a member of the Santa Rosa Plain Groundwater Steering Committee who said he also owns seven parcels of land adjacent to the casino site.
Another foe said economic benefits from the casino would be subtracted from somewhere else.
“We live in a closed economic system in many ways” and casino revenues “will not come from thin air,” said the Rev. James Butler of the California Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, based in Sacramento.
“It will simply be a transfer from some other economic sector,” he said,
The full Legislature must vote on the compact, and a two-thirds approval is required for it to move on to the ratification process at the federal level. It is not currently scheduled for a vote.
Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or firstname.lastname@example.org.