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On Second Thought, Bell and Cudahy Embrace Card Clubs

September 16, 1990|TINA GRIEGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the early 1980s, when a few City Council members in Bell and Cudahy first had the temerity to suggest that they could fatten the coffers of their poor, densely crowded cities by allowing card casinos, some residents and fellow council members had a fit.

"A lot of people, especially longtime residents, looked at it (a card casino) as an evil thing," Bell Councilman George Bass said.

But in the last decade, Bell and Cudahy have become poorer, more crowded--and more desperate for a revenues. And the card casino industry, once looked upon as something that respectable towns should avoid, is being seen by some as an important tool to gain financial stability.

The Cudahy City Council is counting on the fortunes of the Silver Saddle Casino, which is expected to open later this year, to bring more than $600,000 to its vaults. In Bell, where a thriving casino operated for several years before falling on hard times and closing, city officials are hoping for better luck with the Regency Card Club and Casino, which opened this summer.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 20, 1990 Home Edition Long Beach Part J Page 3 Column 1 Zones Desk 2 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Improvements Cited--A story in the Sept. 16 edition of The Times reported that the city of Bell's financial problems had resulted in the lowest quality of service in the last decade. City officials said, however, that in the last decade, they have increased the number of police officers, expanded the dial-a-ride public transportation program and a building-code enforcement program and added a DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program.

City leaders are counting on the casinos to produce hundreds of thousands of dollars for city coffers. Otherwise, both cities would be facing drastic cuts in city services or dangerously low reserves.

To a certain extent, Bell and Cudahy are not alone. The gaming revenues generated by the California Commerce Club, the Bell Gardens Bicycle Club and the Huntington Park Card Casino are vital to all three cities. If something were to happen to any one of those casinos, the effect on their cities would be "devastating," said Bell Gardens City Manager Claude Booker and Commerce Finance Director John Mitsuuchi.

But Commerce and Bell Gardens have strong commercial and industrial sectors and have built up millions of dollars in reserves--enough to cushion both cities for a short while should the casinos fail.

Bell and Cudahy are primarily residential cities, with tiny commercial and industrial districts. Cudahy has less than $1 million in cash reserves; Bell has none.

A successful card casino could be just the shot in the arm both cities need to achieve financial stability, Bell and Cudahy city leaders say. Cities reap 8% to 13% of the gross revenues received by the casinos. With a consistent flow of gaming revenues, city leaders say, they could improve public safety, offer more services, begin building a viable economic base and pour money into public works and recreation.

For a good example of what a card casino can do for a poor city, all Bell and Cudahy city leaders need to do is look east, just beyond the Long Beach Freeway, to Bell Gardens.

Before the Bicycle Club opened in 1984, Bell Gardens operated on such a meager budget that it was ranked one of the poorest cities in the county in terms of how much money it spent per resident, City Manager Claude Booker said.

Now, Booker said, the city can provide each resident with a level of service comparable to the best bedroom cities in the county.

Since the Bicycle Club has opened, the city has increased its police force from 57 to 71 employees and its community services department from 20 to 26 employees, Booker said.

The club has also been a major source of scholarships for area youth and a consistent supporter of charities, city officials said.

"Most importantly, the club has given us the seed money we need to plan for a future in which we are not dependent on its revenues," Booker said.

Not everything that comes with a card casino is good, Booker acknowledged. There is bad press.

Earlier this year, the Bicycle Club was seized by federal authorities after investigators found that the club had been built with the profits of a drug-smuggling operation. The general manager of the club and his firm have been cleared of wrongdoing, and their share of the club has been returned to them, but the other partners of the club are still awaiting a federal court ruling.

The card casino business is also one in which large amounts of cash exchange hands daily, which keeps law enforcement officials always on the lookout for possible wrongdoing.

"There is a lot of cash flowing through the business," said Detective Doug Estna of the Los Angeles County Organized Crime Division, "and if the management is of the persuasion, it makes it really easy to launder. It's hard to keep books on that much money."

Residents of cities with card casinos have also complained that city leaders would turn cartwheels, if necessary, to make sure casino owners stay happy. In the April Bell Gardens election campaign, some candidates complained about the way the city, using its power of eminent domain, cleared out several blocks of homes and business to make room for the Bicycle Club and its parking lot.

Bell Gardens officials have long denied such favoritism, and Booker said there have been some knock-down-drag-out fights with management.

George Hardie, the general manager of the club, said the city recently refused to allow club owners to convert the city's banquet room into card rooms.

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