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Santa Ysabel tribe hires new casino manager

By Edward Sifuentes -- North County Times, Escondido, Calif.

NORTH COUNTY, Calif. (MCT) - The financially troubled Santa Ysabel Band of Diegueno Indians near Julian has hired an experienced gaming manager as its new chief operating officer to run its casino overlooking Lake Henshaw.

Don Trimble said he started working at the casino the week of March 17 and has already started to make changes aimed at improving food service and marketing.

In recent months, the tribe fell behind on quarterly payments to the state and the county. Casino officials blamed the problems in part on the October wildfires, which forced the casino to close for a week, and heavy winter storms that led to road closures.

There were other problems, Trimble said, such as the perception that the casino is too far from urban centers.

''The casino wasn't performing up to expectations and that's why I'm here,'' he said.

Johnny Hernandez, the tribe's chairman, could not be reached for comment.

The $27 million, 35,000-square-foot casino opened last April. Tribal leaders said at the time that they hoped the scenic beauty of the mountains in northeastern San Diego County would attract visitors to generate enough revenue to help the band's 700 members climb out of poverty.

In 2004, the tribe hired Majestic Gaming, an upstart Arizona firm, to develop and run the casino. Though the firm was new, its three core executives had worked together for 12 years developing and managing casino properties, officials said at the time.

Trimble said those three no longer work for the casino, but declined to talk further about their departure.

Before the casino was built, tribal leaders acknowledged that it would not be able to attract the volume of visitors that other casinos in the county draw.

Because of the reservation's remote location, tribal leaders said they decided to keep the casino small. It has only 349 slot machines while most other North County tribal casinos have about five times that amount.

In February, tribal officials acknowledged the casino had failed to generate enough money to cover payments promised in a 2005 agreement with the county for off-reservation impacts. In the agreement, the tribe promised to pay a minimum of $600,000 a year for increased fire and law enforcement services and a problem gambling program.

County officials also said the tribe was more than $400,000 behind on the quarterly payments. State officials also said that the tribe owed it an undisclosed amount in overdue quarterly payments based on gaming revenues.

Tribal and county officials began meeting earlier in March to resolve the issue. No agreement has been announced and John Snyder, the county's lead negotiator, could not be reached for comment.

Because of the cash flow problems, Trimble said the tribe has closed the casino's poker room and laid off five employees who worked there. The tribe also hired a consultant to review the casino's operation, which may result in further changes, he said.

Trimble, who has managed other American Indian casinos in the state, said he was confident the casino can bounce back.

''It's still a great location. It's still a beautiful building.''

Copyright (c) 2008, North County Times, Escondido, Calif. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.