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The State

40,000 Winners, Losers Open Temecula Casino

June 26, 2002|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Camila Bailon, 67, softly stroked the video screen as if it were a newborn child, running her hands over the spinning fruits and lucky 7s and murmuring with pleasure.

Bailon, of Los Angeles, was among the estimated 40,000 people who thronged to opening night Monday at the Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula, a mammoth Las Vegas-style operation that is now the largest Indian-owned casino west of the Mississippi.

Jubilant leaders from the Pechanga band of Luiseno Mission Indians, who along with other tribes poured millions into political campaigns and spent years lobbying federal, state and local officials to allow Vegas-style gambling, are already pushing for expansion.

"Two-thousand slot machines in Pechanga is not enough!" tribal chairman Mark Maccaro said at the ribbon cutting.

The gleaming, $262-million, 13-story facility is billed as California's answer to Las Vegas, with a 522-room hotel, an 88,000-square-foot casino, 40,000 square feet of meeting space and a 1,200-seat theater.

Billboards and radio ads proclaim that Temecula is about an hour from much of Southern California.

"We are basically giving folks the alternative to getting in your car and driving five to eight hours to Las Vegas," said Dual Cooper, Pechanga's general manager.

But opening-night traffic was "absolute gridlock," according to California Highway Patrol Officer Jack Mears. Vehicles were backed up for 10 miles on Interstate 15.

Cooper said traffic flow would improve, with daily attendance expected to range between 7,000 and 12,000 people.

Indian gaming casinos in California--there are now nearly 50--have been booming since the passage of Proposition 1A two years ago. But industry analysts also say California has a way to go before it rivals Las Vegas.

"People aren't going to be saying, 'Cancel my vacation to Vegas--I'm going to Pechanga,' " said Bill Thompson, a professor of public administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who has written six books on American gambling.

But he said the tribe has an ideal location close to a major freeway and could well capture a chunk of the estimated 20% of all Las Vegas gamblers who drive there on Interstate 15.

Alan Feldman, senior vice president at the Mirage in Las Vegas, noted that there are close to 125,000 hotel rooms and scores of restaurants in that city, and that tourists can walk from one casino to the next.

"The mass of all of the casinos together is what gives [Vegas] its power," he said.

But, he said, "California is clearly, under direction of Gov. Gray Davis, emerging as one of the largest gaming states in America."

Davis worked with California tribes to forge legal gambling compacts.

After Las Vegas casino operators successfully sued to block a measure that would have allowed unlimited gambling facilities, California Indian gaming representatives championed Proposition 1A, which allowed more restricted gambling. It passed overwhelmingly.

The Pechanga casino originally opened in 1995 in a cluster of trailers and tents. Tribal leaders played key roles in the statewide campaign for passage of Proposition 1A.

By 6 p.m. Monday, thousands of people were straining at metal gates, eager to get inside. A few minutes before 8, the doors were opened.

Hundreds of senior citizens using walkers and wheelchairs pushed along with other would-be bettors.

"Grab a wall unless you want to get stampeded," said Laurel Buchanan, 23, a blackjack dealer who lives in Temecula and is paying for college on her earnings of about $160 a day.

Some Native Americans said they wished the revenues could come from something other than gambling.

"I have mixed feelings," said Minnie Tafoya, who has lived in Temecula for close to 30 years.

"I know gambling is addictive.... [But] I can see already what money has done for this community.... Now the elderly have a cultural center, and the children have a new school."

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