RICHMOND, Calif. – A Native American tribe wants to build a grand, $1.5 billion, Las Vegas-style casino resort on a swath of land overlooking San Francisco Bay – a spot more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from its tribal lands.
Across the United States, in fact, a number of tribes are seeking to construct casinos well away from their reservations or other tribal lands. And the trend may be about to accelerate: The Obama administration is expected to decide soon whether to loosen the rules on some of these projects.
Gambling opponents deplore the trend and complain that tribes are trying to game the system to expand their operations and get closer to lucrative big-city markets. They fear that more gambling will bring more crime and other social ills.
“These are all casinos coming to a highway ramp near you,” said Cheryl Schmit, director of a nonprofit group that opposes tribal gambling.
Tribes such as the Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians, which is leading the Northern California proposal, say casinos hold the promise of jobs and a better future for their members.
“We have a responsibility to try to make lives better,” said Donald Duncan, a top tribal official.
The vast majority of the hundreds of Indian casinos in the U.S. are on tribal land – often well-removed from big cities – as envisioned under the 1988 federal law that created regulations for the $26 billion Indian gaming industry. But the law has exceptions, including ones for tribes such as Guidiville that have regained federal recognition in recent decades and are looking to establish a reservation.
Off-reservation casinos already exist in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Washington state having been approved in the 1990s.
An Associated Press examination of federal records has found about a dozen tribes that have filed applications to set up casinos on distant pieces of land, close to population centers. In six cases, including the Guidiville proposal, the resorts are slated for land more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) away.
In Michigan, the Hannahville Indian Community wants to build a gambling hall in a city outside Detroit and 457 miles (735 kilometers) from the group’s reservation in the Upper Peninsula. Other cities proposed for such casinos include Portland, Oregon; Phoenix; El Paso, Texas; and Oklahoma City.
For many tribes, the problem is this: Last year, the Bush administration decided that tribal casinos must be within commuting distance of reservations. It rejected applications from more than 20 tribes, including one for a casino 1,400 miles (2,250 kilometers) from the reservation.
The U.S. BIA is now reassessing the commuting-distance rule. And many tribes are optimistic.
BIA spokesman Gary Garrison said isolated tribes should be allowed to run gambling operations off the reservation. But he added: “We’re also very conscious of whether the communities approve or disapprove. We don’t want tribes willy-nilly going off reservation.”
In Richmond, the Guidiville tribe hopes to get the government to declare a 413-acre (167-hectare) tract near the San Francisco Bay sovereign tribal land so the tribe can build a casino resort with more than 1,000 hotel rooms, shops, tribal housing and a shoreline park. Also, the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians is proposing a more modest casino nearby, 113 miles (181 kilometers) from their land near Clear Lake, Calif.
Both tribes say that their ancestral lands were in the Bay area and that they were forced to retreat when white settlers arrived. The land they now occupy was bought with federal grants but is not a reservation and is not suitable for their casino projects, they say.
The non-tribal casino industry is split over the move by Native American tribes to expand gaming. Some casino companies stand to gain by getting hired to run the new gaming halls, while others say the expansion encroaches on their territory.
The Guidiville tribe, which has more than 100 members and owns land near Ukiah, Calif., has agreed to pay the city of Richmond $20 million a year for two decades and to hire nearly half its work force locally. Richmond officials hope the resorts will help revitalize the crime-ridden city of 104,000 where unemployment stands at nearly 18 percent.
Some have their doubts.
“No family achieved economic stability through gambling,” said state Sen. Loni Hancock, a former Berkeley mayor whose district includes Richmond. “I don’t believe any community will either.”
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