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Lytton to open first urban casino

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SANTA ROSA, Calif. - The Lytton Band of Pomo Indians need only Gov. Gray Davis' approval to open California's first Indian casino in an urban area.

The Indian Omnibus Act, passed in late December to restore lands to many California tribes, had provisions added by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., to approve land in the city of San Pablo, near Oakland, to be put into trust for Lytton.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) tribes must have held the land in trust - for the purposes of gaming - prior to October of 1987.

The band was part of a group of 40 tribes which gained recognition in 1991 and thus falls into an exception category established by IGRA that allows tribes which gain late recognition to acquire lands for gaming.

The tribe previously attempted to develop a home base closer to its ancestral home in Sonoma County's Alexander Valley - approximately 80 miles north of the San Pablo site - but faced with stiff opposition from a local homeowners association.

The move spurred little local controversy and tribal attorney Tony Cohen of Santa Rosa says this should be a model plan on which other tribes could base casino plans. He lists several reasons why he feels so.

The casino will be located in a recently vacated card club, which had gambling. There is no problem with the California Environmental Quality Act, in that it is located in a commercial zone. Lytton is one of the few tribes to negotiate a deal with the labor unions, a point of contention over the last few years in Indian gaming issues.

"Lytton was one of the only tribes to be thrown out of their home area and were forced to find land to develop for economic purposes elsewhere," Cohen says.

Cohen and Indian gaming attorney Howard Dickstein of Sacramento both say the original measure to have a card club in San Pablo passed by a 2 to 1 margin and all indicators show the local population is firmly behind the casino plan.

The tribe must now work out a deal with Gov. Davis whose spokeswoman Hillary McLean said she thinks it is too early in the process to comment on the governor's position, though she acknowledges he has been against moving casinos into urban areas in the past.

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Dickstein thinks the governor can be persuaded because of the solid local support behind the project. Furthermore he says, nothing will change at the site other than the type of gaming allowed in the facility.

Besides Davis, other potential sources of dissent come from unlikely bedfellows. Several Indian tribes on the outskirts of the Bay Area and anti-gaming advocates Stand Up for California both say they fear the implications of an urban casino.

"This is politics at its worst," says a source who works closely with California Indian gaming and wishes to remain anonymous.

The source says he is concerned because he feels it runs contrary to the message sent by tribes during the Propositions 5 and 1A campaigns that legalized Indian gaming in California. He feels it has broken the necessary faith with the California public at large and worries moves like this into urban areas could prove to be a public relations nightmare for California Indian tribes.

Additionally, the source says several of the tribes who operate casinos on the rural outskirts of the Bay Area are worried that the Lytton casino will draw Bay Area customers away from them. They feel their urban customer base will not drive to their establishments when they can simply stay in the Bay Area.

He said he feels Dickstein is involved because a tribe he represents, the Rumsey Band which operates Cache Creek casino near Davis, will manage the casino for Lytton.

Cheryl Schmitt, co-director of Stand Up for California, says that while her group does not outright oppose the casino and acknowledges the legality of the deal, she agrees with the anonymous source that the move could potentially set a precedent in which tribes could start to develop urban sites.

She points out that former California governor and Oakland mayor Jerry Brown is considering another tribe's request that a casino be developed at an old Oakland Army base near the eastern approach to the Bay Bridge, a mere five miles from downtown San Francisco.

"I see this as no benefit to the tribes and to Indian gaming. I just hope they know what they are getting themselves into," Schmitt says.

Dickstein and Cohen say they think the fears are unfounded. Cohen points out that the local community surrounding the casino site is undergoing a renewal based on the coming casino. He says there are strip malls and markets already being constructed in what he describes as a formerly run down urban area.

Dickstein insists that because of the local support there will not be a problem with public relations and thinks when the facility is converted it will assuage people's fears.