Inland California tribal casinos scored expansion win with help of neighbors


By Jim Miller -- The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (MCT) - The prospect of living in the shadow of some of the world;s largest casinos did nothing to dampen neighbors' support for inland tribal gaming expansion deals on February's ballot, final election results show.

The four agreements passed with about 56 percent of the statewide vote in the Feb. 5 election. Up to 63 percent of voters in San Bernardino and Riverside counties approved the measures.

Voters in some precincts closest to casinos offered even stronger endorsements. Any qualms about more traffic, higher crime or other problems linked to gaming seemed trumped by goodwill for the tribes and their casinos' roles as job and entertainment centers.

The deals will let the tribes install up to 17,000 slot machines in addition to the 8,000 they already have. In return, the tribes will pay the state a share of slot-machine revenue through 2030, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office estimating the state will receive $276 million in 2008 - '09.

''We figured it was already there,'' said Marjean Larson, of Rancho Mirage, who lives about a mile from the Agua Caliente Casino on Bob Hope Drive. ''The state needs money. If they're going to get what they say they're going to get, that will be good.''

In the Coachella Valley, people living within two miles of the Agua Caliente tribe's two casinos backed the four casino-expansion deals by an average of 67 percent, according to detailed election results released in early March.

The February ballot also contained casino-expansion deals between the state and the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians near Temecula, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians near Banning, and the Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Indians in San Diego County.

Sixty-five percent of voters within two miles of the Morongo Casino Resort and Spa backed the agreements.

Fifty-eight percent of voters in precincts around the Pechanga Resort and Casino in southwest Riverside County supported the agreements. But a slim majority of voters in the neighborhoods northwest of the casino opposed the pacts, among only a relative handful of inland precincts where the agreements failed.

''At first I thought, no, no, there will be more traffic,'' said Mary Peterson of Temecula, who lives less than a mile from the casino and can see the tribe's hotel from her house.

''But when I finally got in the booth, I voted for it,'' Peterson, 76, said. ''I guess I felt that we could use the money.''

Albert Berrocal, 62, of Temecula, who lives less than a mile from the Pechanga casino, also voted for the deals. He sometimes walks to the casino to have a meal or gamble a little, he said.

More slot machines shouldn't have much impact on the area's traffic, Berrocal said. The tribe, he added, wins points for involvement in community activities such as its purchase of school equipment and helping people displaced by last fall's fires.

''They have a great public-relations effort,'' he said. ''In that respect, they've won over the people in the area.''

In 2000, two-thirds of voters in Riverside and San Bernardino counties backed a ballot measure to legalize Las Vegas-style gaming on tribal lands.

An unknown heading into the February election was how inland residents, after several years of casino growth, would view the prospect of even more gaming. A Press-Enterprise poll of several hundred inland residents last May indicated that two-thirds of residents were leery of the proposed gaming expansions.

Proponents heavily outspent the opposition, which included two horse-racing tracks, a union trying to organize casino workers, and two other tribes with casinos. Supporters featured recipients of tribal charity in campaign ads and mailings.

The agreements did best in southern California, where most of the state's largest tribal casinos are located.

Most voters opposed the deals in the San Francisco area, where there are no casinos. Opposition also was strong in areas such as Sonoma and Amador counties, where there has been conflict over plans to build tribal casinos.

That was not the case for neighbors of inland casinos, even in areas where there has been casino-related discord in the past.

Some neighbors of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians near Highland in San Bernardino County have complained that the tribe's casino amid a densely populated residential neighborhood worsens traffic.

The San Manuel tribe's recent casino-expansion deal with the state wasn't on the February ballot. Still, 61 percent of the casino's neighbors backed the four similar pacts that were, results show.

Frank Forsey, of Highland, lives just south of the San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino. He said he voted against the deals because he worries the additional slot machines will worsen problem gambling among people with little money to spare.

''They're good people,'' Forsey said of the San Manuel tribe, noting the $25 gift certificates to local stores that the tribe mailed to neighbors over the winter holidays. ''They do good, but the money they do good with comes with costs.''

Copyright (c) 2008, The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.