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CALIFORNIA ALBUM : Tribe Tosses the Dice With Its Own Casino : Unlike other Native American tribes, the rich Agua Caliente Band for years disdained opening a casino. But in April the tribe quietly opened the Spa Casino, complete with video slots.

June 19, 1995|PAUL LIEBERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PALM SPRINGS — When casinos began sprouting on tribal lands throughout California a few years back, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians were the most notable holdouts.

Owning much of the land in this tourist Mecca, the Agua Caliente were the state's richest--and most cautious--tribe. "We don't need it--and we don't want it," one of its leaders said of gambling.

The Agua Caliente thus stood in contrast to nearby tribes such as the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, which opened one of the first tribal gambling halls in the country and fought legal battles with local authorities--leading to the Supreme Court decision that gave Indians the right to offer any type of gambling legal in their state.

The Agua Caliente softened their stance in 1992, announcing that no less than Caesars World Inc. would build a $20-million gambling hall for them. Yet, even then, tribal leaders exhibited caution: \o7 Their \f7 casino would feature only games clearly legal in the state, they said--meaning none of the slot machines that were being introduced by other tribes.

"We're going to take a more conservative approach," vowed tribal chairman Richard M. Milanovich.

That was then. This is now.

In April, the Agua Caliente quietly joined the gambling age, opening--with virtually no public notice--the Spa Casino next to the historic Spa Hotel, set on tribal lands atop the mineral hot springs that gave this city its name.

And there, right inside the entrance, were rows of video slots. So were a dozen blackjack tables, another form of gambling considered illegal in California by state and federal officials.

The great holdouts weren't holdouts any longer.

"We weren't getting anywhere," Milanovich said. "We kept biding our time, hoping the state was going to come around" and agree that tribes could offer slots and other classic casino games. Meanwhile, "we were not taking advantage of . . . opportunities that were available," he said.

Over Memorial Day weekend, radio ads began touting June as the official "grand opening" of "Palm Springs' only casino."

So do the Agua Caliente now regret waiting so long while other tribes raked in the cash?

"You know, hindsight is hindsight," Milanovich said.

But did he regret holding out?

"Sure."

*

Opened though it may be, the Spa Casino is far from the facility envisioned when the tribe announced its deal with Caesars.

Planned then was an 80,000-square-foot complex of restaurants, stores and entertainment facilities, in addition to the casino. But the lingering California court fight over the legality of slot machines--which are the key to profitability for casinos--made it difficult for the nation's giant gambling companies to carry out joint ventures on tribal lands in the state. Such companies risked losing their lucrative Nevada licenses if they conducted illegal gambling, even outside the borders of that state.

This spring, Caesars parted with the Agua Caliente--and the tribe opened the casino on its own April 10, hiring managers trained in Indian gambling halls in Arizona and New Mexico.

For the time being, the facility encompasses merely 10,000 square feet off the Spa Hotel's swimming pool. But that's enough room to create a miniature version of a diverse modern casino.

Much of the atmosphere comes from 165 video slots, beeping and flashing away, between clusters of blackjack and poker tables. There's a cash window, an ATM machine and a small bar--a bank of TVs above it showing sports events, as they would in Vegas.

On one Sunday, most of the slots were occupied by 10 a.m., the gamblers a mixture of retirees, golfers and locals.

"We put this place together in 21 days," marveled one of the managers, Nick Kolich, "and we have been packed."

The Agua Caliente view this as a first step, well aware of the three huge tribal casinos recently built, or expanded, on other reservations in the Coachella Valley along Interstate 10: Morongo to the east, and Twenty-Nine Palms and Cabazon to the west, next to each other in Indio.

Cabazon's Fantasy Springs Casino covers 93,000 square feet, with another 53,000 in final design stages, said the tribe's chief executive officer, Mark Nichols. The Cabazons already offer a Vegas-style floor show and occasional name entertainment (such as comedian Paul Rodriguez), with a goal of becoming "a destination resort," he said. The next step? "An amusement park for children."

On a philosophical level, at least, Nichols enjoys seeing the Agua Caliente join the gambling game after years of seeming to be above it--and he applauds them for doing it without Caesars.

"I never quite understood the need to bring Caesars into their equation to appease a limited element that, for whatever reason, thought an outside company might be able to run it better," the Cabazon executive said. "Our approach has always been it made no sense to give away the lion's share [of profits]" to outside managers.

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