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Will Town Take a Gamble for Its Moment in the Sun? : Gaming: Raisin community of Fowler must vote on casino that could fill coffers but also harm area's charm.

July 20, 1992|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FOWLER, Calif. — Through the booms and busts that have blazed across the Central Valley, this has remained a one-horse town, living and dying by the raisin.

The town whistle screams out each noon from City Hall to Bedrosian's National Raisin and to the lush vineyards at the Ahlberg family farm, where in seven weeks the tumid green Thompsons will be laid out row by row to bake in the sun.

Folks will pray for no rain until the last wizened berry has been binned. Only then will they hold the annual fall harvest festival.

No one has challenged this cadence for as long as 102-year-old Elzy Benson can remember. At least not until a few months ago, when Michael J. Schreiber landed here, flaunting 300 new jobs and untold millions for the local kitty.

This is sweet blandishment to more than a few residents, and to the mayor, the City Council, the newspaper publisher and the police chief, who is looking to expand his five-man force and retire the white Dodge with 130,000 miles.

All they have to do is persuade a majority of Fowler voters--1,450 are registered--to say "yes" on Aug. 4 to the biggest poker casino this side of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Like the never-forgotten 1908 campaign to incorporate the town--the drys against the wets--this one pits friend against friend and is too close to call.

"I've seen a lot of disputes come to Fowler but never this bad," said Benson, who moved here in 1902 at age 13. "I wish I had a thousand votes cause I'd vote a thousand times against it."

Change usually comes pell-mell in a hundred quiet zoning variances and a hundred hazy amendments to the general plan. But here, a town's future has never loomed more clearly.

A vote for the casino is a vote for the development that has made the valley around Fowler one of the nation's fastest-growing regions. A "no" vote is reaffirmation of the lemonade stands and noon whistles that make this place so endearing to some.

In a time of budgetary woes, more towns are swallowing the gilded pill of Texas hold 'em, pai gow, Asian stud, pineapple and pa.

There are 300 card rooms up and down the state, but only a handful are larger than the 40-table variety Schreiber proposes. Such a casino can generate millions of dollars a year in revenue--10% and more funneled to the cash-starved city as a kind of licensing tax.

It is an odd symbiotic relationship--city regulates casino that sustains city. Of the chosen spots for such a marriage, few seem as unlikely as this rural town seven miles south of Fresno: population 3,665, 13 churches, two cantinas.

"My husband gambles every day. He's a farmer," said Claudia Ahlberg, standing outside the town pharmacy. "When he throws the grapes on the ground next month, he's betting it's not going to rain.

"That's all the risk we need in our lives. With two teen-age boys, we don't need to worry about a 24-hour casino in town."

Across the street, Al Cole sips soda in front of his auto parts store.

"I'm a Christian," Cole said. "I don't believe in playing cards. But if we don't find a way to bring in more cash, you can kiss this dar gurn town goodby.

"If we don't get this card room, it's going down the road to Selma."

Opponents vilify Schreiber as a harbinger of debauchery. Supporters proclaim him a savior from hard times ahead.

A Los Angeles physician's son, he said he has played poker, traded stocks, launched an auto parts business and sold life insurance, women's coats, mobile radios, telephones and ads in far-flung places.

One venture left him deep in debt. He is 40 and living off the largess of his mother and friends.

"Not everyone is a Mozart," he said. "How old was Colonel Sanders when he made it?"

Epiphany struck in April, 1991, at the tail of a four-day losing streak. Schreiber rose from a poker table at the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens and counted 56 tables in play. It was 3 in the morning.

"I said: 'Michael, you're on the wrong side of the table,' " he recalled.

At first glance, it seems so improbable--a poker casino on an onion field at the edge of this town. But Fowler has moved between the voices of chaste and the voices of vice throughout its 120-year history.

The town's first business was a saloon. Twice, the townsfolk split over a local election and both times the issue was vice. The drys won incorporation in 1908 by 11 votes only to see the wets prevail by six votes in a 1933 beer measure.

And it is not as if dens of gambling are novel here. Bruce's Lodge, a legendary local eatery that people remember for the airplane that stuck out of its roof, sheltered huge crap games protected by Fresno law enforcement throughout the 1950s and '60s.

Schreiber knew none of this history. But he found the right button to push--the "Selma factor," Fowler's rival to the south, the big bully that bills itself "the raisin capital of the world."

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