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Beyond the casino

There are about 20 of us in hard hats, walking through the construction site
on 15th and L streets. Amid the scaffolding and the jackhammers, we all file
into a large, open-freight elevator, and ride up to the 15th floor, rising
above the Capitol and taking in the sweeping views of downtown Sacramento.
Some on the elevator are a bit apprehensive about heights–and about the open
elevator. “You’d never get an Apache up this high,” someone blurts out.
There is laughter, and the tension is broken.

Most of the people in the elevators are tribal members, here to check out
their latest venture: a new Marriot hotel and condominium project that will
be a centerpiece of the new downtown Sacramento.

The hotel and condo project is being financed by three Indian tribes–two
from California and one from Wisconsin–and is just the latest example of the
role tribal governments are playing in the redevelopment in and around
Sacramento.

The capital is a city in transition, with new restaurants and bars opening
every month, and dozens of new housing projects and condos coming on the
market. And increasingly, California Indian tribes are becoming players in
the redevelopment of Sacramento.

The Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians and developer Mark Friedman are partnering
on a massive, mixed-use development along the waterfront in West Sacramento
near Raley Field. The city’s mayor, Christopher Cabaldon, says Friedman has
taken the lead on the project, but the tribe remains “one of the major
players in Yolo County.”

Just eight years after the passage of Proposition 5, which led to a boom in
tribal gaming in California, the state’s Indian tribes have diversified.
While gaming is providing the initial revenue, tribes are now involved in
different kinds of business ventures.”We own all kinds of things–a bank, an
outlet mall,” says Charlie Brown, business-development officer for the
Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. Viejas is one of the three tribes involved
in the construction of the new downtown Marriot. “This project became
available, and it was just too good to pass up.”

For Viejas, the hotel is just the latest piece in an increasingly diverse
economic portfolio. Among the assets owned by the tribe is the Mighty 1090,
one of the largest AM and FM sports stations in Southern California. The
signal can be heard from Ensenada, Mexico, all the way to Santa Barbara.
Viejas’s partners in the Marriot venture are the San Manuel Band of Mission
Indians from San Bernardino County and the Sovereign Oneida Nation of
Wisconsin, located near Green Bay.

The three tribes have formed a separate corporation, Three Fires LLC, to
oversee the hotel construction. Already, there are plans for a
political-themed bar in the lobby to be run by local restaurateur Randy
Paragary.

Oneida tribal chairman Gerald Danforth says the creation of a separate
corporation has been instrumental in helping to navigate the
often-treacherous political waters of multiple tribal governments. “It’s a
lot of bureaucracy and hoops, like anything else,” he said. “But the
corporation has a corporate charter that complies with tribal law [of all of
the governments involved]. It has it’s own board of directors.”

This is the second cooperative effort between the tribes. The tribes came
together to build another hotel, also a Marriot in Washington, D.C., near
the National Museum of the American Indian. The partnership for that hotel
also included the Forest County Potawatomi Community, another Wisconsin
tribe.

The San Manuel Band, the other California tribe involved in the project,
also has a diverse collection of economic interests. The tribe runs a large
Arrowhead water-bottling plant on its reservation. The tribe also owns a
12,000-square-foot building in Washington, D.C., where it provides free
office space to California Indian Legal Services. And recently, they
acquired Twin Palms Restaurant, the Pasadena eatery once owned by Kevin
Costner.

All of this, of course, was made possible by gaming. But as the tribes
continue to expand their economic power and reach, the fight over tribal
acquisitions has gotten nasty at times. Last year, Rumsey attempted to
partner with environmentalists and Yolo County officials to secure the
purchase of 17,000 acres of land to preserve as farms and wetlands, blocking
efforts by energy companies to purchase the land.

John Gamper, the California Farm Bureau Federation’s director for taxation
and land use, was one of the major critics of the tribe’s involvement in the
purchase, comparing it to “allowing the Japanese or Chinese to have a vote
in the Senate because they’re willing to buy our treasury bonds.'”
But Cabaldon says the tribe is playing a major role in the redevelopment of
his city. He says Rumsey’s latest development will be a centerpiece of the
development of the waterfront extending from Sacramento into West
Sacramento.

“It’s the largest piece in the entire project. They see this as being a
defining development for the whole region in terms of architecture and
design,” he says. But construction on the waterfront project is not likely
to begin until next year, and then only if the commercial and residential
real-estate markets rebound. “This is a big deal for them and for us. It’s
unlikely to come in until the market is ripe.”

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