The only federally recognized tribe in Sacramento County, California, is moving forward with its resort and casino project with the support of many in the community—and opposition from a business organization that first posed as a citizen group.
The 700-member tribe of Miwoks was one of the 41 tribes terminated in 1958 after the enactment of the California Rancheria Act.
“When our tribe was terminated, the federal government didn’t keep their trust responsibility with improving the infrastructure on the rancheria as promised,” Wilton Rancheria Tribal Chair Raymond Hitchcock says. “Families were allotted lands—but they also were assessed many years’ worth of tax bills to keep their allotment. Some families lost their small parcel of land over taxes.”
After regaining its recognition in 2009, the tribe set out to reestablish its government and social services. Currently, the entire tribal government occupies a 10,000-square-foot converted warehouse in Elk Grove, about five miles from its original rancheria site.
“We are in our infancy stage as we are the 109th tribe in California to be recognized,” says Hitchcock. “We are working diligently to get caught up to provide much needed programs and services to our tribal community.”
The resort and casino is part of the rancheria’s plan to deliver those services.
Wilton Rancheria decided on “Alternative F,” one of six alternative sites, a 35.9-acre site at the southern edge of Elk Grove, a suburb of Sacramento, for its new endeavor and is currently in the land-into-trust process. The plan calls for a 611,055-square-foot hospitality and entertainment facility, including a 12-story hotel with 302 rooms, a 48,150-square-foot convention center, six restaurants and bars, and a 110,260-square-foot gaming floor. An outlet mall, under development by the Howard Hughes Corp. for several years after a previous shopping mall failed, will be at the resort’s northern end. The rancheria has signed an option to purchase the resort land from the developer. The site is also located at an existing exit along State Route 99, a major freeway in the county, which caused the tribe to turn down a previous location due to the high cost of building a new overpass.
“We want to work with the community,” says Hitchcock. “It will benefit our city and county services and programs and the building trades, bring up to 2,000 full-time jobs to the area, give much-needed assistance to the tribe for programs, and allow us to be the philanthropists we are at heart.”
According to Elk Grove’s website, the community of 161,000 is seeking more local economic development and tourism opportunities. According to statements released by the United Pastors of Sacramento and Region Business, the Sacramento area’s business association, many community members support the project.
“It is our belief that the Wilton Rancheria Casino & Resort is the next big catalyst project,” said Region Business President David Temblador. “The project will benefit the City of Elk Grove and the greater Sacramento region by funding essential infrastructure and saving the outlet mall project from several more years of inactivity.”
“The Wilton Rancheria casino and resort will greatly benefit the community by bringing new jobs that our parishioners desperately need, and by creating other benefits for the Elk Grove area,” United Pastors Chairman & President Dr. Anthony Wallace wrote to the tribe in late August. “We also fully recognize and appreciate the benefits the project will have for the long term health and welfare of your tribe.”
However, a small group, “Protect Elk Grove,” which was formed in mid-2016, is protesting the project. The group distributed a two-page flyer to residents, which Hitchcock says contained “a lot of nasty misinformation.”
Between the flier and the robocalls made to locals, the group seems to be well-financed, Hitchcock says.
As recently as December 1, the group’s true backing was unknown. Neither George Urch, a consultant from Southern California who organized both the group and a public meeting held on August 11, nor any of the local organizers, responded to phone calls and e-mails from Indian Country Media Network seeking information. The organization’s website owner is hidden by a proxy service in Arizona. However, a filing by California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, revealed at a hearing from another pro-gaming group, finally unmasked the backer: Knighted Ventures LLC, a firm that leases employees to card rooms, including one in Elk Grove, according to a report in the Sacramento Bee.
So far, the anti-Indian gaming group, which claims on its website that a casino would increase traffic and crime, reduce sales taxes flowing into city coffers, and even that the tribe could hold any future development hostage to the California Environmental Quality Act, has not attracted many direct supporters. Hitchcock says that only four people attended a public meeting held by casino opponents, which he and two other tribal representatives attended. Another 19 people spoke out against the casino during an Elk Grove city council meeting on August 14. However, Knighted Ventures’ next move was to back a petition drive in November; the petition results may force a special election challenging the city’s agreement with Howard Hughes.
But the tribe isn’t daunted.
“The land into trust process is a slow one,” Hitchcock says. “The tribe is going about it in the right way, working in partnership with our local jurisdictions and community leaders. We can wait a bit longer to make sure the process is done right, although we waited well over 25 years to regain our recognition, which is already far too long.”