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Indian Casino Is Bay Area Backwater's Ace in the Hole

A deal signed by the governor may signal a major change of fortune for hard-luck San Pablo.

August 20, 2004|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SAN PABLO, Calif. — This gritty little Bay Area city ran short on luck decades ago. Industry declined, jobs disappeared, crime and poverty took hold. Tucked innocuously between the cascading traffic of Interstate 80 and the brine of San Francisco Bay, San Pablo slumped into the 21st century.

This week, the blue-collar town of 31,000 saw its fortunes turn. In a big way.

Residents learned that a 255-member Indian tribe plans a gargantuan casino -- the nation's third-largest -- on San Pablo's doorstep. With 5,000 slot machines spread over a floor space bigger than half a dozen Home Depots, the gambling palace would be nearly triple the size of the state's largest existing tribal casino. It would mark the deepest incursion by Vegas-style gambling into California's urban core.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a deal Thursday with the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians for San Pablo's mega-casino, one of five tribal compacts now up for ratification during the Legislature's final frenzied week. The deal would allow a mammoth metropolitan gambling emporium never before seen in California, with the state standing to gain 25% of revenue from the casino's slots and game tables.

In many cities, such news might be as welcome as a visit by Godzilla. Indian casino proposals regularly spawn hostility around the Golden State, but no major organized opposition has yet surfaced here.

City officials have embraced the idea, and so have many of San Pablo's denizens. To them, a multistory, neon-bedecked casino represents progress, the prospect of jobs and civic renewal -- a dash of hope.

"It's going to be wonderful," said Katie Engler, 83 and a longtime resident of a mobile home park not far from the 9.5-acre casino site, now occupied by a struggling card club. "They say it's really going to bring in jobs and revenue to the city. And I kind of like to have the excitement of it. I'm not a great gambler, but I might put a few bucks in there."

Travel up or down the freeway a few offramps and the reviews in neighboring towns aren't nearly so positive.

Residents of places like Pinole, Rodeo, El Sobrante and Albany see the prospect of already nasty commutes made even worse by a crush of casino-bound traffic on a freeway already considered the Bay Area's most congested. They worry about spinoff crime and other problems, the litany of community concerns typically aired when tribes propose casinos.

"I hate having casinos, period," said Gorden Stone of Pinole, a nearby middle-class commuter town. "They've been sold a numbers game. They want to believe in the worst way it's going to help San Pablo, that they're going to make great money on it, but in the end, I don't think they're going to come out ahead."

Some blame George Miller, the Democratic congressman who slipped a few lines into an omnibus bill in 2000 that allowed the Lytton Band, a tiny tribe based 40 miles away in Santa Rosa, to convert the struggling Casino San Pablo card club into tribal property.

Some grumble, too, about Schwarzenegger, who forged the compact that would allow a bigger and bolder casino squarely in the city even as he has voiced opposition to Indian gambling in urban settings.

Miller points the finger at Schwarzenegger for allowing what once appeared a modest project to grow into a behemoth. "This was not at all what was envisioned," said Daniel Weiss, Miller's chief of staff. "It's an enormous facility they're talking about, and he's very concerned whether this is a manageable proposition for that community."

Officials in the Schwarzenegger administration counter that the governor's hand was forced by Miller's legislation and that the San Pablo casino compact was the best deal possible under the circumstances.

The deal could eventually pour up at least $152 million annually into state coffers at a time when California expects another budget shortfall next year.

It also should help to halt the proliferation of other big urban casinos, the administration officials contend. If ratified by the Legislature and approved by the federal government, the compact would give Lytton a virtual Bay Area gambling monopoly, freezing out several other tribes angling to build casinos in the region.

Despite that looming threat, plans remain in the works for two Indian casinos in Richmond, just south of San Pablo. Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown has talked of casino tribes setting up shop in that East Bay city. Another is casino is being sought in Rohnert Park to the north. Nearby, the Golden Gate Fields horse track could add thousands of slot machines if voters approve Proposition 68, a measure put on the November ballot by tracks and card clubs eager to gain equal footing with tribal casinos.

Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, a Berkeley Democrat who represents a swath of the East Bay, worries mostly about the San Pablo casino, which she intends to fight in the Legislature.

"It has turned into the monster on the landscape," Hancock said. "No one was prepared for the immense size of this."

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