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California and the West

Casino Without Slots a Losing Bet for Town

Gambling: Fowler card room couldn't compete with nearby Vegas-style Indian-run facilities. It has been vacant for four years.

February 25, 2001|JASON SONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FOWLER, Calif. — Five years ago, the chips were stacked high at the newly opened Vineyard Casino, a huge yellow building along U.S. 99 that contributed nearly $25,000 a month in taxes to this small raisin-growing town.

Today, the building is deserted. And the town's cash cow has turned into a white elephant, a reminder of the money and jobs that Fowler, about seven miles south of Fresno, lost when the casino's doors were chained shut in 1997.

"People had a lot of hopes for that place, but it just didn't work out," sighs Mayor Jim Simonian.

Although Fowler residents approved a controversial gambling ordinance in 1992 and attended the Vineyard Casino's opening in droves four years later, the facility racked up debt and was shut down 10 months after it opened. It has been empty ever since.

The failure says as much about the evolution of gambling in California as it does about the Vineyard Casino. Like many card rooms offering games such as poker and pai gow, it had difficulty competing against Vegas-style Indian casinos unleashed by recent statewide ballot propositions.

"If you have a card room anywhere close to an Indian casino, the card room is going to do poorly," said Mike Franchetti, a lawyer representing a San Francisco card room that, along with three other non-Indian gambling facilities, is challenging Proposition 1A. The 2000 ballot measure gave Indian tribes exclusive rights to run Vegas-style casinos in California.

No fewer than four Indian gaming facilities, which--unlike Vineyard--can operate slot machines and play blackjack, are within easy driving distance of Fowler.

"You don't know how many times buses would come up and [gamblers would] ask, 'Where's the slots?' " said City Manager David Elias. "When they found out there were no slots, they'd leave."

City leaders consider the vacant property a prime location but too large for most businesses to afford. They hope to attract some kind of telephone calling center like those used by high technology firms; the building is already equipped with fiber-optic lines.

With a population of about 3,900, Fowler's economy is as straightforward as the city seal, which shows a bunch of purple and green grapes.

"My husband's a raisin farmer. His brother's a raisin farmer, and his brother's a raisin farmer. That's what most people do around here," said Jane Bedrosian, president of the town's Chamber of Commerce and a co-owner of National Raisin Co.

When investors pitched the idea of a casino and accompanying measure to allow limited gambling in town, Bedrosian, a City Council member from 1988 to 1992, and others worried that it could bring in bad elements such as organized crime.

Despite Bedrosian's opposition, the promise of as much as $2 million annually in tax revenue and more than 200 jobs was too attractive to voters.

Although the early months were good, attendance at the Vineyard began to slow down. "On some days, there were more employees in there than players," said Alan Dervishian, a Fresno resident who used to play at the Vineyard.

Everyone has a theory for the drop in business: The novelty wore off, some say. Others point out that Indian casinos were already blossoming, years before Proposition 1A settled most questions about their legality. Furthermore, nearby towns, such as Fresno, have their own card clubs, giving their residents little reason to come to Fowler.

On the casino's final day, in January 1997, gamblers were kicked out of the hall late in the afternoon by sheriff's deputies and security guards, leaving players confused and Vineyard employees like Sophia Damlong desperate.

Like many other dealers at the Vineyard, Damlong depended on her gambling skills to supplement her weekly wage of $250 to $300. The day before the casino closed, Damlong lost $17,000 playing pai gow, an Asian card game.

"I came in to work that day thinking I would make some of it back," Damlong said.

Damlong quickly found another dealing job at Club One, a card room in Fresno, but still looks back with some sorrow at what could have been. "I thought my luck was going to change," she said.

Though no public money was sunk into the project, the city had been counting on revenue from the card room, and Fowler sank into a deficit that grew to $1.7 million at one point. The city also lost a prime piece of property along U.S. 99 that could have served as an anchor for other businesses.

There has been passing interest from restaurants and banquet halls, but the Vineyard's size and operating expense rule out most businesses.

As they look for a new tenant, Fowler leaders worry that one business that could afford the Vineyard is a tribe looking for a casino site. There have been only sporadic talks between city officials and tribal representatives, but the hint of gambling has touched a nerve.

Councilman Mac Shaw, a soft-spoken schoolteacher, has led the charge to repeal the gaming ordinance, a largely symbolic gesture he says would serve as a warning to the gaming industry that gambling is not welcome back in Fowler. Some council members are in Shaw's corner; others are hesitant.

"I see panic in that we're trying to beat something down that isn't there yet," said Councilman Henry Fernandez, the only member left from the council that approved the casino in 1992.

However, residents like Bedrosian never want to see a queen of spades again. As she stood outside the fenced-off Vineyard on a recent afternoon, she looked at the Vineyard and its vast, empty parking lot and tucked her hands under her arms to guard against the chill.

"This just was not a good fit for Fowler," she said.

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