New tribal compact moving toward Senate floor

A little-known tribal gaming pact has emerged in the Legislature within the past few days, pushed by a North Coast lawmaker in a gut-and-amend bill. Thus far, there has been no opposition to the pact – a rarity for gaming agreements.

It passed the Assembly last Thursday by a 68-0 vote. Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, not known as a big supporter of tribal gaming, spoke in its favor. The compact, spearheaded by Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Eureka, could head to the Senate floor by the end of this week.

The Senate Governmental Organization Committee is scheduled to hold an information hearing Wednesday on the pact, which would grant casino gaming rights to the 205-member Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake. The compact is contained in SB 89.

The Habematolel compact appears to bring together many of the features that groups opposed to many tribal casino projects have long said they wanted—local input, legitimate private land and a small, rural location.

“No,” replied Cheryl Schmit of Stand Up For California, a frequent opponent of tribal gaming projects, when asked if she was going to oppose the Habematolel project.They’re following the right process. They got a local agreement. They got a compact. Now they’re going to proceed to the next step. There’s nothing to be against.”

According to tribal chairwoman Sherry Treppa Bridges, the tribe began the project by going to county and local officials first, back in 2005.

“It’s not controversial,” Bridges said. “We’ve got county support. We’ve got other tribal support.”

The down economy also appears to have played in the project’s favor. One of the region’s largest employers, the Konocti Harbor Resort and Spa on Clear Lake, closed last month, taking over 700 mostly-unionized jobs with it. The County currently has an 18 percent unemployment rate, Bridges said. Chesbro cited the 140 jobs the new casino would create as one of his motivating factors.

“This is a unique developer agreement,” Chersbro said. “As soon as we get Senate approval, good-paying jobs will be created in Lake County. The reason for the urgency is because Lake County is suffering from one of the highest unemployment rates in the state and these jobs are badly needed.”

The deal would allow the tribe to operate up to 750 slot machines. But Bridges said they initially plan to roll out with only 349, plus six gaming tables. Though they plan to build a hotel at some point in the future, the initial facility will operate in a 34,000 square foot temporary structure, in order to get into operation sooner.

“A lot of it has been about getting it up and open in order to service the debt,” Bridges said.

She said the project is being financed by a $25 million investment from Luna Entertainment LLC of Michigan. The tribe, she said, needs to start making payment on that debt—and would have run into problems getting their compact done in time without Chesbro’s bill.

While there are no major towns in the immediate vicinity, Bridges said, it will be able to draw traffic from nearby Highways 20 and 29, and the U.S. 101 and Interstate 5 freeways. The operation sits in a farming area consisting of pears, walnuts and, increasingly, wine grapes—which Bridges said could help make it a key tourist area.

“The Napa Valley kind of spilled over,” she said.

Schmit, a noted gaming critic, praised the tribe for waiting to take their land into trust before pursuing a compact. The Bureau of Indian Affairs granted the trust land just over a year ago.

Bridges said the landless tribe was eyeing a 60 acre parcel of ancestral lands. However, a large portion of the property was part of a creek restoration underway by Lake County, so they agreed to take only 11.2 acres outside the restoration area.

The deal also sought to sidestep the controversy some other tribes have encountered. According to Capitol sources, Assembly GO chair Joe Coto, D-San Jose, proposed last week that the Habematolel deal be wrapped in the same bill with another nearby proposed casino project by the Pinoleville Band of Pomo Indians.

But the Habematolel successfully lobbied to have their deal put in its own bill. The Pinoleville have been controversial to some in Indian country since the tribal council disenrolled several members in a leadership dispute. The Habematole and Pinoleville are two of seven bands of Pomo Indians living the area.

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