Gaming revenue helps California tribe realize its goals
By Babette Herrmann -- Today correspondent
AUBURN, Calif. - For the more than 200 tribal members of the Auburn Rancheria, the past five years have been like a fairytale come true thanks to revenue generated from the Thunder Valley Casino.
The tribe opened the casino in 2003, and currently has ambitious plans to expand the property to include a 4- to 5-star hotel, expanded gaming area, new restaurants, a performing arts center and a children's area.
''We're hoping to expand because that's what the customers are asking for,'' said Chief Jessica Tavares.
The tribe has set its sights on breaking ground by this summer. Meanwhile, the tribe must pass a series of inspections, including environmental impact studies.
Tavares said that swallows are an issue as they have attached their nests to the current structure. She said if all goes as planned, a bird sanctuary built behind the facility should attract the swallows. ''We had to come up with a really good plan,'' she said.
Currently, the casino offers about 2,700 slots to choose from, including 150 in a nonsmoking room, and 102 table games featuring blackjack, pai gow and baccarat, in addition to newer games such as three- and four-card poker and Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em. A new poker room made the wish list of gaming additions.
The tribe has not determined the number of new table games and slot machines to be included in the expansion, just that there will be more for customers to choose from, said Kim Nickols, a spokesman for the tribe.
Plans for the new hotel include 23 floors containing 650 rooms. Of course, no hotel would be complete without a pool, spa, family center and arcade.
Even though the project is in the early planning stages, Tavares said they want to add a children's area so kids have adequate supervision while their parents spend time enjoying the adult offerings. ''We are looking at having a Kids Quest or something like it,'' she said.
Kids Quest, an independent company, offers child care on an hourly basis for a fee.
The addition of two new ballrooms, totaling 30,000 square feet, will be ideal for conventions, seminars, receptions and gala events.
To add their own brand of unique entertainment, the performing arts center plans to hold theatrical performances, such as operas and plays, in addition to concerts and trade shows. ''We would like to be different and offer a little something for everyone,'' she said.
Three new restaurants are in the plans as well, and will complement the existing buffet, cafe and upscale steak house.
The renovation of the property will include a tribal cultural exhibit so patrons can learn more about the Maidu and Miwok peoples of Auburn.
Tavares said that the gaming revenue has greatly benefited the tribe, along with the outpouring of about $1 million each year for philanthropic causes and organizations within Placer County. And the tribe pays out millions more to the local, state and federal governments.
The tribe's past may seem like a bad dream. Tavares said that she grew up poor, in a home with no heating, electricity or running water - a common thread shared by many tribal members.
To further compound the already struggling tribe's troubles, in 1967 the United States terminated trust land responsibilities to the Auburn people, except for a nearly three-acre parcel that contained a church and a park. Many were forced to sell their homes, as property taxes were too expensive for them to pay. Next came the termination of their federal recognition in 1967.
Fast-forward to the '90s, when a few tribal members, including Tavares, became modern-day warriors and reorganized their tribal government. The first order of business was to ask the government to reinstate their federal recognition.
So, in 1994, Congress enacted the Auburn Indian Restoration Act, which granted them recognition. The tribe eventually settled on 49 acres outside of Lincoln, Calif.
Tavares said that she was officially elected as chairman in 1995 and has won each election since. ''I don't know how I got to do this. It was not my first choice,'' she said.
But nonetheless, ''You were everybody else's first choice,'' said Doug Elmets, a spokesman for the tribe.
Tavares spearheaded the casino project, and sought the legal help of high-profile tribal law attorney Howard Dickstein. With his help, the Auburn tribe persevered and turned their dream into a reality. There were legal hurdles to overcome in their quest to exercise full tribal sovereignty.
And instead of turning its back on the concerns of the local community, the tribe worked closely on complying with its neighbors, garnering favorable and positive feedback. ''With the casino came the advantage of giving help to everyone else,'' she said.
Elmets said that the tribe entered into the first Memorandum of Understanding between a tribe and local government. ''The Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton hailed us a model for how all tribes should work with local governments and local communities.''
Since the casino opened in 2003, the quality of life for tribal members has steadily improved. For starters, Tavares said the day that the casino opened, all tribal members became entitled to full health, dental and vision insurance.
''Many that never had dental work done went and got their teeth fixed,'' she said. ''Now they can smile.''
To add to the smiles, educating the next generation of Auburn people topped of the list of quality-of-life improvements. So, with the help of gaming revenues came the United Auburn Indian Community Tribal School. There is one teacher for every seven students at the pre-K through 12th-grade school.
''The teachers that are hired are able to meet their needs and make sure they are well-educated,'' Tavares said.
A female student recently graduated high school at 16 - footsteps in which she hopes all the young people will follow. ''I don't want the children to live like the way we lived, hungry half the time,'' she said.
In hopes of bringing back some cultural practices and customs lost through decades of assimilation, children are learning the songs and dances of their tribe.
But revitalizing the language may take some time. ''There were so many different dialects in this area, and it's really hard to try and get that together,'' she said. ''We're doing a lot of research.''
With an impoverished past not too far behind them, Tavares said that the success of the Auburn people is a true Cinderella story. ''Sometimes we have to ... think if it's real,'' she said. ''It's a fairytale dream.''
To learn more about the United Auburn Indian Community, visit www.auburnrancheria.com or the casino Web site, www.thundervalleyresort.com.