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Hotel Owner Wants Casino Issue on Ballot : Gambling: A proposed $25-million project would add an 80-table card club to Norwalk's Saddleback Inn, renovate the 265-room hotel and add a restaurant.


NORWALK — A hotel owner who would like to run the city's first casino has asked a largely skeptical City Council to place the issue of whether to allow a card club to open on the November ballot.

D.J. Brata wants to add an 80-table card club to his Saddleback Inn on Firestone Boulevard. The proposed $25-million project would also include a renovation of the 265-room hotel and the addition of a restaurant and banquet rooms. George Hardie, general manager of the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens, would be a partner.

At its Tuesday night meeting, the City Council will consider whether to give local voters a chance to approve an ordinance that would permit a casino to operate in Norwalk.

"This is not a vote for a card club," Brata told the council in a cover letter to his proposal, "but a vote for letting the will of the people be heard. This is the American way."

Brata did not return telephone calls last week.

Brata and Hardie are likely to run into considerable opposition. Council members Grace F. Napolitano, Mike Mendez and Robert J. Arthur said in recent interviews that they oppose bringing a casino into town. Mayor Luigi A. Vernola, who was out of town last week, has said he also would oppose attempts to build a card club in Norwalk.

Councilman Robert E. White, who asked that the proposal be placed on the council agenda, did not return telephone calls for comment.

Napolitano said last week that she does not want a casino in town because she fears that it will bring crime into the city.

Napolitano said she decided how she will vote Tuesday night after an informal poll of her constituents.

"Why should I put it on the ballot if they don't want it?" Napolitano asked.

Arthur said that the council should decide on the card club, that he wants to study the issue further but that he generally opposes a casino.

"Right now, I'm not in favor of it," Arthur said. "The card clubs have a reputation that is not real positive . . . crime, from prostitution to laundering monies."

Mendez said: "I don't feel a card club is what we need in Norwalk. The revenues would be great, but I think the element it would bring in would be wrong."

Brata and Hardie have been meeting in recent weeks with council members and City Manager Richard R. Powers to promote the benefits of a card club.

Hardie said Brata approached him about the casino in a bid to draw customers and inject new life into his financially strapped hotel. Brata bought the hotel in August, 1988.

"Joe Brata has a 40% occupancy rate," Hardie said. "He's having severe financial problems."

One result of those problems is that Brata has not promptly paid the city its 8% bed tax. As of June 25, Brata owed the city $35,730 in outstanding taxes, interest and penalties, Powers said.

Hardie said the card club would draw new customers to the hotel, including businessmen who want to spend evenings gambling. That would boost the city's revenue from bed taxes.

In addition, the city would be guaranteed $1 million a year in gaming tax revenue, Hardie said, and the proposal would create 750 jobs.

"It offers a lot of positives to the city," Hardie said.

The city expects to spend $18.9 million this year from its general fund to provide salaries and other costs of general city services.

"Revenues are not all that important when it comes to the security of the community," Napolitano said.

A good example, she said, is the Bicycle Club, which was seized by the federal government in April and placed under Bell Gardens control.

A federal jury found four men guilty of a complex racketeering scheme that involved investing drug-smuggling profits in the building the club, among other ventures. One of those men was a partner of a group that owns a 65% interest in the Bicycle Club.

Hardie holds a controlling interest in another partnership that owns the remaining 35%. The U.S. attorney in Miami has stated that Hardie's partnership is innocent of wrongdoing.

Hardie, who testified as a government witness during the three-month trial, has said he did not know drug money was used to help build the club.

Hardie said a card club is no more likely than any other business to generate criminal activity.

"Unfortunately, the card club industry has a tremendous spotlight on it, much more than other industries," Hardie said. "We are investigated continuously, and we welcome that."

Norwalk residents opposed to the casino are already organizing.

The Rev. Luther Nelson of Trinity Lutheran Church in Norwalk said he has called 15 churches in the area to encourage their members to circulate petitions in opposition to the proposed casino. Nelson said the signatures would be presented at the Tuesday council meeting.

"Gambling has proven to be a destructive influence in the lives of many homes," Nelson said.

This is the second time a casino has been proposed in Norwalk.

In 1983, the City Council approved an ordinance to allow a Santa Fe Springs developer to build a casino in Norwalk. White, who voted for the ordinance, is the only member of that council still in office.

Residents opposed to the casino tried to repeal the ordinance through a referendum. But in a victory for card club proponents, city voters decided, 53.7% to 46.3%, to let the ordinance stand.

The developer eventually dropped his plans to build the casino, and the City Council in 1985 unanimously rescinded the ordinance.

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